Katarina, staring into the star-patterned paper over her lap, sat alone in a cold patient room and contemplated her future. Her cancer had returned; she had expected the diagnosis, yet she still worried about how much time she had. All cancer treatment equaled suffering to her, but the methods to combat her rare form were especially brutal. Put off what you can, her mother had told her long ago.
How many times do you have to approach dying before you are unafraid of it? She wondered. Is it possible to walk by a snake so many times that you lose the fear of it striking?
She inhaled deeply and surveyed the room. Someone had tried to lighten the decorum with underwater photos of coral and colorful sea creatures. On the surface, the images were beautiful, and Katarina recognized a few species from her children’s coloring books. She remembered that one of the animals went extinct a decade ago. She shifted towards a mirror she had been avoiding. Her reflection resembled a wilted flower in need of a drink. Her pixie-cut hair had silvered partially on the lower half, but auburn tresses clung loosely to the top. The last year had carved deep lines into her face, and she traced one along her forehead with a boney finger. The pinkness of her flesh had started to drain, giving way to the colorful stages of bruising. The veins and tendons, seemingly many more than usual, showed through papery skin as bundles of wiring spilling over her bones.
A quick knock at the door stole Katarina’s attention away from her Dorian reflection, and a petite nurse entered and politely shut the door behind her. The young woman had long, dark hair —much like the hair of Katarina’s youth— pulled back in a long braid. A pin on her scrubs read ELISE. Katarina had a fondness for Nurse Elise, established by her many visits before that day. Elise cared for Katarina so much, she insisted to always be the staff member who assisted her. Through years of trust, she had understood Katarina in a way no other professional could comprehend. This relationship helped to make bad news more bearable.
Elise and Katarina observed each other in a silent exchange until the nurse pursed her lips and shook her head glumly. Katarina attempted to say something, but only a raspy sound erupted.
She cleared her throat and shut her eyes, flinging her head back in annoyance. Elise walked over to the cabinets and pulled out a disposable cup from above the sink. She filled it with tap water and passed it to Katarina. When Katarina accepted the cup, Nurse Elise spoke.
“It is balled up around your uterus again. Your reproductive organs look like a black hole. The parts in the spine are spreading to the heart and lungs.
I guess you could say it is looking for something soft to eat.”
Such morbid analogs did not bother Katarina, as she appreciated them. Reality deserved fair representation.
Nurse Elise took Katarina's hands and with a sincere look stated, “I think it’s time we consider the alternative options.”
Katarina nodded stoically and slid off the exam table. She patted the nurse’s hands before letting go to re-tie her scarf. The nurse touched Katarina’s upper arm in one last sign of affection.
“I’ll start making the preparations for you.”
Katarina sat at a round, oak table, the contents of a manila folder and a pill bottle ordered neatly before her. The papers were mostly typed documents, the kind one signed their life away to avoid reading. An 8x11 headshot of a handsome, smiling doctor sat atop the stack of unsorted papers. She delicately lifted the image, considering it for a moment, before flipping it face-down onto a growing discard pile. In Katarina’s other hand, she held a voice recorder closely to her ear, the device reeling out white noise. A brittle female voice interrupted the static.
Katarina pressed pause and fished a white tablet from the rainbow grid of pills laid out before her. She placed the bitter chalk to her tongue and chased it with a swig of earthy fluid close at hand. With a whirl and click, the recording resumed from its beginning.
“Oni? Oni…I’m…I’m not going to make it. They say this tape will reach you. I’m not so sure I trust them, but I have no better choice. I had hoped to live long enough to see you again, but the past is catching up to me now.”
A few crackles.
“Know I did not abandon you. I will always love you, dulcito.”
Katarina pressed pause and rewound the tape briefly. She clicked start again.
“I will always love you, dulcito.”
The phrase choked up Katarina. She played it repeatedly until it haunted the room.
The ebony of a long winter consumed the landscape. Katarina had hiked for three hours in the thick, conifer forest and seen nothing but Ansel Adam inspiration, dashed with a bit of moonlight blue. She could scream into the night, unleash ear-splitting fury into its expansive silence, and barely an echo would break its snowy peace. She would save her voice, though. Tonight, she would end her suffering.
The cabin arose as she rounded the corner of the trail. The tin roof furnished a gleam of silver to the black and white wilderness, but otherwise, the cabin appeared as an unremarkable feature in the woods. It resembled most log cabins advertised for rustic weekend getaways: a standard lumber box with a roofed front porch and a conical chimney vent. Next to the cabin, a well-traveled path through the snow winded to a white, dilapidated annex building that was sizable enough to fit a van. A yellow light shined onto the snow beside the structure from an out-of-view window. The light was expected, just not in the predicted window. Katarina stopped and rolled the rim of her beanie to expose her ears to the cold. She listened, looking carefully between the front porch and the smaller building. She reconsidered her plan before fully removing the beanie and stuffing it into her coat.
No one else would be here, she told herself. Only she and the doctor, as had been planned. Surely a man of his practice would appreciate the privacy of death.
She removed her backpack and coat to reveal a sleeveless white dress with a halter neckline. Long, thick pieces of satin ribbon from a bow draped down her upper back. Instead of prickling from the cold air, her arms blushed a lively pink she had not seen in months. Slowly, she marched toward the house, stopping after each step to sweep her tracks away with the coat and to listen for any sound. Once at the front steps, the annex building loomed out of her view and she remained out of its sight. The runner lattice stopped just before the steps, leaving enough of a gap that she could hide her coat and pack behind them.
The steps and porch had been recently cleared, but the banister still had a few inches of compacted snow on it. Small vermin footprints dotted the coating. Katarina tested the front door to find it unlocked, and she smiled weakly. Alaska’s wilderness lay so remotely, almost everyone relaxed security once settled in its land. She blessed the mistake and entered the dark living room. For a moment, she waited, possibly for an ambush.
Nothing. She walked along the foyer side of the living room. Along the wall next to her, she approached a half-cocked door. Her spine tingled. She winced slightly and willed the feeling away. Soon, she thought, as she peeked behind the door to see the room was a full bathroom. From her new angle, she could see the faint outline of a lamp by the television set.
She crossed the room and twisted the switch. Warm, incandescent light shone dimly from a half-burned bulb. Cautiously, she looked around, her senses detecting nothing on the radar. She saw a stouter table lamp by the corduroy couch and turned it on as well. Now, the room would be bright enough, although it was not she who required the light.
She returned outside to the porch, leaving the front door cracked.
“Ready?” she invited no one.
No one responded with an intense warmth radiating through her body.
She grabbed the porch pillar and yanked it towards her. It remained solid and fixed without a wooden groan of weakness. She leaned from the porch to survey once more for any disturbance. The night rewarded her with quiet. Satisfied, she pulled off her gloves and knelt to hide them with her coat. Both her hands gripped the back corners of the pillar, and she leaned slightly away, pressing the front of her rubber-tipped boots high on the wood. She brought her other foot up just below the first so that she could hold herself in a stable triangle. The pillar accepted this, bearing the weight. Continuing to pull on the pillar, she climbed the structure like a cat-burglar, shifting her left side after the right in a repeated motion. She reached the roofline and lifted herself sideways onto the rafters, attempting to disturb as little snow as possible from the overlying slab. Some clumps dropped from the edge, clopping softly below into the snowdrift. A few dropped onto the porch, but this did not concern her. Any woodland pest could knock off those bits. She perched herself by the ledge, pulling her knees to her chin, and sat back into the frame to look out at the edges of the porch. Now, she could bait the trap.
The thought sickened her. Never was she ready. She had performed this several times before, but like a phobia, she had to calm herself to confront it. How many times do you have to walk by a snake before you are unafraid of it? She buried her face into her shoulder, closed her eyes, and sniffed a deep wheezy breath through her nose. One tear broke free and dripped partly down her cheek. It froze just before the ear. The warmth that had greeted her earlier now flushed her face.
Katarina wiped the stunted tear away. Some things must be done, her mother had said.
That fury she had wished to release earlier, she let loose in a scream.
It echoed, interrupted only by the distant flapping of startled wings. The night grew quiet again. Then a door slammed open from an out-of-view building.
How ironic that sounds are their clearest when resounded in empty spaces.
Katarina’s scream reached Dr. Henry when he had driven deepest into his inner chasm of contorted thoughts. He had been anxious about what to do next when the piercing sound shattered his concentration. For a moment, whiskey eyes in soft mocha skin flashed before him.
The doctor clutched the nearest object for support. The vision passed, and Henry quickly collected himself. He withdrew a concealed pistol from his belt and bolted through the workshop’s door.
It was freezing outside. It was never not freezing in Alaska’s winters. Henry cursed the bitter nips of air, cursed whoever this wretched screamer was. He wished for Nassau as he stomped angrily along the stoned path towards his house. Henry’s flight-or-fight response consisted mainly of fight. Adrenaline pulsed rage through him with each step, but the half bottle of whiskey he had drunk earlier stifled his reactions. Drunken ferocity had him spinning around in search of the sound, not stopping to think that perhaps it should be feared.
In the dark, a woman’s voice came from the porch. “Oni? Oni…”
Henry paused in disbelief then rushed for the porch. His foot hit a slick spot, flipping him forward into the snow. The whiskey-colored eyes flashed again. “Domi!?!” he yelled, scrambling, layers of wet snow collapsing beneath his shaky push-ups. He eventually got a knee under him and steadied himself before rushing to the house. He saw the living room light on, and a cautious hope began to build inside him. “Domi!” he exclaimed as he pushed open the door with both hands. He waited, panting, eyes darting around the room, waiting for any sight or sound to reveal the sweet, disembodied voice.
A spidery shadow descended behind him.
Katarina lowered herself with stealth onto the porch. She poised, crouched behind Henry. The hair on the back of her neck prickled. The hair on her upper back followed. Then the light fuzz grew to longer strands, the follicles widening. The strands—driven by some unseen magnetic force—elongated, amassed, entangled until thickly braided into a single, red tentacle of twisted licorice. Behind Katarina, the cancer she called the root rose silently above her head, poising like a cobra over her shoulder.
“I will always love you,” she uttered through out-of-sync lips.
The root javelined through the man’s throat as he turned to greet the familiar voice. By instinct, Henry reached upward with the pistol in hand to cover the hole, pressing its cold metal to the ribbed fabric impaling his jugular.
Thin vines peeled away from the tentacle like curls of birch and skewered the hand, long quills piercing through muscle and tendon, forcing the weapon to fall. Henry attempted a scream, but his agony came out as raspy gasps, like air escaping a tire leak. He gripped his skewered palm as if he could somehow stop the pain, before clawing at the tentacles. His nails split backward against scaled cables as hard as steel.
The root tore its piercing tentacle from Henry’s neck, letting the man fall forward into the living room. Henry pressed desperately at the neck’s entry wound, crimson gushing through his fingers. Blood flowed unimpeded from the exit side, soaking his clothing. Gritted teeth revealed a mouth full of blood that spilled down his chin in garnet globs.
“Heh…heh,” Even the word help had abandoned him.
He rolled onto his chest and flailed for the nearby gun. Katarina knelt into the man’s extended arm as calmly as someone at an altar for prayer. He groaned, his eyes wide with rage and fear.
“Shhhh,” whispered Katarina like a mother to her infant while reaching for the hand clutched against his neck. He attempted to pull away from her, donkey-kick upward at her, but the tentacle puffed out barbs and speared him through the upper back. Henry emitted a gurgled cough, splattering Katarina’s knees with red spray, before going limp. The tentacle retracted, ripping away flesh with its spurs. The tatters absorbed into the limb, chunks rolling beneath its ribbon skin in a swallowing motion, before the tentacle unwound and disappeared into Katarina’s back.
The violent death elicited no reaction from Katarina. She had seen such passing several times before this. Her world demanded it. Now, the man was only a body, a doll of flesh laying ragged on the floor. She closed his eyelids before walking to the bathroom.
She washed the blood from her hands, as much as she cared to remove before returning to the butchered. Katarina gripped the sides of the sink and steeled herself to look in the mirror at a face not quite her own. Already her hair had begun to soften and darken, and the clouded eyes began to clear. She pulled down her left eyelid and gently pressed a finger pad to her iris. A thin film squeezed and released. Like an eclipse, a brown disc moved away to reveal a radiant, amber iris behind it.
Like all modern monsters, Katarina wore a disguise, although hers was simple: a single contact, colored brown to match her right eye. It had hidden a stunning set of heterochromatic eyes for decades. To most, those eyes were a marvel that made her memorable—a danger she could not indulge. To a trained few, they were a rarity that may indicate she is a danger no man should indulge. She had many unique features. She did not regret covering this one. She laid the contact aside on the sink.
She peered over her shoulder at the bathtub, a rectangular seventies model colored yellow eggshell with a stippled bottom and shallow depth. It would not be optimal. She considered the galvanized tubs stacked outside the annex, but the set-up would waste too much precious time. The body continued to drain in the living room, Katarina’s mess spreading into more wooden boards. She had to make do.
She walked over to the corpse and knelt beside its head. The root emerged again, wrapping a tentacle around the body’s waist. Small tendrils peeled from the extremity to lap up pooling blood. Katarina gripped the back of the corpse’s neck and lifted the body as easily as cat lifting a kitten with its jaws. The root hefted with her. A second tentacle uncoiled from Katarina’s dress and dragged behind her like a tail, slurping up the gory trails. She walked the luggage to the bathroom, the tail closing the door behind her.
Katarina stripped the body of clothing and tossed it into the bathtub like casting aside a heavy sack of groceries. The face gaped upward in horror—an expression of fear fixed to it as a final memento. She pushed the face away from her and then leaned over to the faucet to turn on the cold-water tap. Both tentacles prodded the corpse excitedly, each like dogs sniffing out treats. As the tub filled with water, Katarina turned her attention to the body’s head. She placed both palms over the face, one thumb centered over a temple, and pressed down into the skull. The root followed her actions and began to constrict around the hips and ribs. The first crack is the hardest, but there was no need to rush it. The water level had only reached the man’s ears. In the past, she might have skipped this part entirely, bludgeoned the skeleton with a fist or a rock. Her involvement was more ceremonial than necessary; something to rally the troops. Time, however, had given her an appreciation of culinary arts. Preparation should be respected. A gradual build-up of the pressure, a tighter squeeze of her thumb, a proper roll of her hand’s heel, and at any moment, the bone would—CRUNCH!
The skull collapsed beneath her strength just as the water level touched the nostrils. A small splash and a few waves released. Red plumes billowed from the crater where the face used to be. Down lower, flesh split under constricting vines, the ribs splintering, the pelvis unhinging, the body losing shape with each sickening snap.
She knew the root would focus on tenderizing the body and moved on to her next task.
She reached behind her neck to undo the knot of her dress. The wrap unfurled from her torso, unveiling a dimpled back that was toned and disturbingly scarred. Should anyone see the mosaic of pockmarks, she would lie and claim it was a bad reaction to the Pox. Many people accepted this, but some generations were more polite than others. Should anyone press, she would tell a half-truth that she grew up in a Catholic orphanage. That answer had silenced curiosity for two centuries.
The two tentacles appeared attached to the back of her neck and shoulder blades. From her lower back, more of the root’s threads began to push through the dimpled points like seedlings emerging for Spring. Another four tentacles formed, thinner than the first two, and slithered below the surface of the thickening bathwater to help their companions with finishing details. The remaining ones, ravenous but patient, splayed into dendritic fans of purple veins across Katarina’s back. She slipped the dress and her undergarments completely off, and the veins crept over the freshly bare skin. The infestation continued from the nape of her neck to her tailbone, while she took off her boots and leg-warmer stockings.
Now fully nude, Katarina stood, and the root pulled the tentacles from the water. The largest one lay affectionately atop her shoulders like a boa. Its constricting partner passed over it to form a sash across Katarina’s torso. The smaller four wrapped parallel over her lower back and abdomen in a stack of hugs. Katarina turned off the faucet and observed the stew below her. The burgundy liquid smelled of copper and sweets. A line of red jelly had congealed along the rim. Beneath the liquid, a body rested that’s bones had been coarsely crushed until malleable. In the red shimmer of her reflection, she could see the sleek webbing of tendrils covering all but her face. The stems were making their final push to the crown of her head. Below, she could feel them tickling between her toes. This was her most natural self, and despite how much she resented its purpose, she admired herself in this way. She stepped into the tub, careful to place a foot on each side of the noodles that were once legs, and then lowered herself into the water. The shallow depth of the tub made her contact with the body uncomfortable at first, its hairy lumps poor cushion in the shared grave. The root quickly initiated its feast, though, harpooning needle tips into the flesh and drawing deeply from the quilled straws. The tingling sensation of a waking limb spread through her as the body below her deflated. Katarina lowered inch-by-inch to allow the root to attach her like Velcro to its meal until her face was just above the water line. She opened her mouth, as if to say ah, and closed her eyes.
From her throat emerged a tongue-like proboscis, long and dripping in saliva and mucus. Two black vines shot out from the corners of her mouth and lassoed each ear. Around her mouth, more capillary webbing blossomed outward like petals. The tendrils from her mouth spread under her jaw and over her eyes, connecting the webbing outlining her face, to create a shielded mask. Once the cover was in place, Katarina submerged.
Under the water, she could hear the frenzy beginning, feel snakes unraveling to join the feast, the proboscis slurping, but the sounds were fading, her mind dissociating. The liquid surrounding her roiled like a storm, but she was sinking into calming oblivion. She took a deep breath from her mask, feeling the heating water slip from detection. The root would protect her, she told herself.
Now rest, the root responded.
[Insert passenger list circa 1892. A woman’s name, Lina Koller, circled in ink. Next to it a note: Kohler?]
The light of a full moon illuminated the bathroom, and Katarina’s eyes softly fluttered. Katarina awoke within the now-empty bathtub: no bloody water, no beaten cadaver. The root had completely withdrawn itself into her, leaving her naked. Despite being exposed, she was warm with fever. Her skin and hair were tinted red as if she had soaked in tomato soup. Sticky with sweat and remnants of human stew, she reached her arms up to grab the sides of the bathtub and lifted herself up to sitting. Her muscles protested but complied.
She relaxed her jaw and rolled her neck side-to-side, releasing loud pops from her vertebrae. She pulled her knees to her chest and crossed her arms over them. She then sighed through parted lips before softly dropping her forehead against her arms. She rested still, breathing a few cycles, then rolled her head and eyes up to face the front of the tub. A small bar of half-dried soap sat melted by the faucet handles. With groggy reach, she leaned forward to twist both knobs until tepid water spilled from the spout. Her shaky hand grabbed the bar of soap.
Once finished with her bath and cleaning away what grisly grime caked the tub, Katarina stepped over to the mirror, dripping water all over the floor mat. She reached for a hanging towel on the door handle and wrapped the towel around her and tousled her wet hair. It felt thicker and smoother. She looked in the mirror and ran a section through her fingers, examining the rich tresses that cascaded through them. Her eyes drifted over to her face. The lines had faded. Rosy, bowlike lips had replaced thin, nude ones. Her once turned-up nose had angled out to one as straight as a Greek statue’s. She investigated the nose by dabbing a finger down the bridge, flicking her finger off the tip. Green had invaded her brown iris, giving her amber eye a complementary partner.
She pulled on only the stockings and shoes, ignoring the dress; she knew the blood had ruined it. She grabbed the dried-out contact and went outside to retrieve her hidden items. Even in a towel, the heat radiating through her shielded her from the slightest chill. The outerwear and backpack remained where she had hidden them. The pack contained fresh clothes and simple cleaners. She discarded the contact in one of the backpack’s zipper compartments and returned inside with her belongings.
In the living room, she could see the blood had dried as a large, ruby stain on the cedar floors. She pressed the fringe of the wrapped towel to its surface to test for wetness. Brown flakes dusted the fabric. A few days had passed. She changed into her new clothes—a hiking outfit—and quickly went about wiping and disinfecting any surface she might have touched after awaking.
Thoroughness was not an objective, as evidence from before the revival would not matter. The DNA she shed had so many individuals in it that forensics would think Dr. Henry had a party before his ill-fate. Unfortunately, forensics would find the attendees were long dead. Her new fingerprints would shift and swirl for weeks before settling into a pattern. Katarina cleaned so that it would look like an attempt was made, as one might expect at a murder scene.
She finished her chores, collected the damp towel and stained dress, and stuffed them into her backpack along with the cleaners. She stepped outside and slid the bag onto her shoulders before walking towards the dark tree line. A rotten odor wafted across her path, and Katarina’s stomach clenched. The rancid smell drifted from the annex building. She revolved to see from where Henry had marched. The door hung wide open.
A shiver ran down her spine, and she felt unsure if it was her nerves or the root delivering the message. Once she headed for the building, though, she knew she had registered the stench correctly; inside the annex would be death.
Katarina had walked in silence for nearly six miles before turning on her cell phone. The device struggled to awaken after days of sleep and without a strong signal. After several minutes, the screen corner popped up a single bar of connection confidence, and she made a call.
“Kata! you’re awake!” the cheerful voice on the other line greeted.
“Hi, Elise,” returned Katarina to the nurse from her hospital visit.
“How are you feeling? It’s been days. I know you’ve always said it can take up to a week, but you’ve always been just a few days, and—”
“Elise, I’m fine,” Katarina shorted her. “As fine as I am every time before now.”
“I finished cleaning up. You can call in the tip when the sun peeks out again.” Katarina looked up to the sky before she continued. “There needs to be an addition to the story, though.”
“You’re gonna find a body in the annex. A girl, about twenty, Asian.”
“I didn’t know about the girl.”
Katarina inhaled gravely.
“I was focused on the kill. And the Molt took five days because the guy was drunk. I’d interrupted him while he was in the annex building with her. He’d left the door open, and the heater in there went out…”
Katarina closed her eyes. The woman she’d found had once been fair, but her skin had soured from decay; her lips chapped blue; her eyes glassed over with ice. She had been handcuffed to a pole, dressed in thin cotton tank-top and joggers. A nearby bowl of syringes indicated she had been kept drugged. Unoccupied cages with dingy mattresses lined one wall, their ragged blankets cruelly out of reach. Katarina looked down at her left hand. Her fingernails still appeared purple and blue, but fresh blood slowly crept into them. The root wiggled around the knuckle of her middle finger, a worm delighting in fertile soil.
“I’m so sorry, Kata.”
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