A Tune Forever Off

Dr. Beckman enters the abandoned house and finds Melanie, a former Sunnygrove patient whose inner turmoil calls out to him like the scent of meat calls a starving dog. Simultaneously welcoming and fighting the entity that has him under its thrall, he feels the man he used to be sliding away, but is it really such a bad thing if that man was a monster?

 He had done some questionable things in his time on this world, but almost never did he lose his polite, soft-spoken demeanor. Combined with a doctor's status people tended to think of him as a nice guy, and nice he was, until it was necessary to get down to business.

His eyes were cold and hard like tarnished gems and his smile was more of a reflex than a genuine expression of mood. He dressed subtly and simply but with just enough style to let others know of his nature; a gentleman, someone who would treat you well unless it was prudent to do otherwise.

His grace and self-possession struck people as uncanny, conveying not warmth and humanity but an unidentifiable otherness.

He would slip cat-quick through unlikely places, often watching, sometimes doing much worse. People seen with him had a tendency to disappear, or end up quiet and withdrawn. But his effect was more than merely voice and demeanor.

He took something from people, something no one should ever be forced to give.

Emotion came in infrequent bursts, sometimes intense, sometimes barely noticeable, and only when it was convenient for the purposes of the Presence.

Other than these brief moments of humanity as who he was before struggled to break down the door they erected in his mind and become whole again, he was as emotionally detached as any creature crawling alone in lightless caves.

 

***

The living room was old and unloved, caked with cobwebs and the faint aura of its previous occupant as well as a new one, the scent of mold and nearly evaporated perfume redolent in the air; stifling and sickening.

A floral-patterned sofa and matching recliner stood near the large, shuttered window, and a ragged-looking rug barely concealed the poor state of the hardwood.

As soft and careful as a cat on the prowl, Dr. Quentin Beckman entered through the front door, which had been left open to the winter night, being careful not to disturb the teenage girl curled up on the sofa, long legs folded against her chest.
She was at least fifteen, but regardless he mentally filed her as a child. The aura she put off was fearful and helpless. Her long sable hair spilled over her face, mostly concealing it. She wore a pair of blue jeans, a blue plaid blouse, no shoes. Her feet were covered in dirt and scratches as if she'd been running through the briar-choked woods behind this property.

Quentin didn't know why she was here; it seemed like the last place anyone would want to be. But to a runaway, it was the perfect place to hide.

He wondered how he knew so much. His memory of the past few days was marred by missing time, and what he did remember frightened him.

This house was claustrophobic, the living room barely suitable for what few pieces of furniture it held. The only light, a dull overhead, didn't alleviate any of this. There was also the question of why electricity was still available.

Judging from the way she twitched and mumbled, she was having a bad dream. Something about this enticed him. Drew him.

A sound rang through the otherwise silent house, tinny and strange.

He immediately headed for the hallway, inwardly wincing at the dust being stirred up just by moving through these spaces.

But in truth, far worse things were being disturbed. A neat freak by nature, Quentin kept dusting off his suit coat, flicking nonexistent filth from his sensitive piano fingers.

In the master bedroom, a music box sang. A familiar melody, some lullaby that temporarily eluded him but its once clear, whimsical sound had with age warped into something almost menacing.

Its tune was forever off, and as he eased open the door and turned on the light, it was nowhere in sight.

The drab room with peeling hunter green wallpaper and stained white carpet held little of interest. Quentin looked at the vanity whose mirror had been entirely obscured by dust, clutter and mementos lovingly collected by the house's previous occupant, an elderly woman, had all been taken—except for one.

It had been moved. He reeled slightly at this development.

So he wasn't the only piece of the puzzle, the only member of this game.

Quentin had good ears and after a few seconds of listening to the discordant trinket, he deduced it to be hidden under the bed. Lifting the corner of the quilt and dust ruffle off the mattress, he grabbed a pen light from his breast pocket, shining it beneath. There was nothing there but old wads of tissue, bobby pins, socks.

The music box fell silent.

A brief sense of panic wormed through him. This wasn't right. He listened for it, strained to hear through the thick quiet and blood pumping through his head, quickened by a nervous, eager heart. The box would have to be wound up again before it continued its unnerving little song.

The question was, who wound it up in the first place?

Stealing another quick glance at the bedroom, Quentin returned to where the sleeping girl lay, caged by memories.

His large, light-brown eyes surveyed her carefully.

Her vulnerability and current obliviousness to the world filled him with a sense of power.

If he wanted to, he could snuff out her light. With the various drugs at his disposal as well as his extensive knowledge of poison, he could do it so quickly she would not even wake up. A merciful death, compared to the slow psychological breakdown that plagued her now.

He fancied the thought, but a voice in his head, the one that held his strings, wouldn't allow it. He—no, it, or perhaps they—needed the girl. No one would understand but them, but in this long abandoned house, a truth gleamed like a mirage, and in his weakness—

No, power—

Quentin dared to grasp it. Gently, he brushed her hair away from her face.

He smiled, a rare thing for him, but it was tinged with bitterness. Those delicate features, pretty and young, were all but perfect but for the anguish distorting them, and one pink, pencil-thin scar across her jaw. He placed one hand on the girl's forehead. It was cold and fever-dry.

His voice seemed not his own as he said, “are you there?”

No response. Barely visible in the low light, her tightly closed eyes rolled back and forth in their sockets, occupied by REM sleep.

He got down on his knees, on the filthy carpet, and leaned close, whispering, “I want you to wake up, but not yet.”

For a moment he enjoyed the susurration of her breath. It was more rapid now, but the change was so subtle only someone with the most acute senses could perceive it.

You're going back to Sunnygrove soon.”

This provoked a reaction. Her hand, once relaxed, curled into a fist. Veins stood out against thin, pasty skin, and muscles, and tendons, and other things, intangible. He concentrated, feeling the Presence in his mind extend like some slimy invertebrate crawling out of a shell.

We're renovating things,” he continued, his voice increasingly far away. “We're changing things... for the better. You wouldn't understand. You're so broken, and god will it, no one else is willing to fix you. No one understands you like we do. You'll hate us for what we are and try to run away--”

She moaned, a high-pitched, mournful sound. Her teeth were set, her eyes flickering ever quicker back and forth, haunted by the images cast by a tormented brain. A macabre theater where phantoms acquired flesh and the ability to breathe. He could almost...see what frightened her. It should be impossible, but...

That puppeteer which had come without warning and changed Quentin profoundly in the halls of Sunnygrove Wellness Center wasn't just a state of mind, wasn't just a slightly different chorus in the same set of voices. It was alive. Maybe not in the traditional sense, but somehow alive all the same.

It swam through him, every form yet no form at all. It felt the ebb and flow of this girl's dreams, and sought to increase the misery.

Why?

Because we're...you're...I am....

You don't belong here. Quentin felt a stab of anger akin to what one feels when their home and property is being invaded, torn asunder by someone with no right or reason to be there.

Because I'm hungry. I need to fill the empty. I need...need...

A mental image flashed like lightning, like the phosphorescent glow of deep sea monsters beckoning travelers forever blind.

For a moment Quentin could see nothing but two blurry shapes, as if behind a pane of frosted glass. Then it became clear.

It was a ruddy, calloused hand closing around a slender throat. Not enough to completely choke, possessive. Blood seeping between the fingers, not hers...someone else's.

No, no, no, please...” The girl began to struggle and Quentin snapped back to reality. She almost fell off the sofa, one arm clawing at her throat, another punching at imaginary foe.

He was subliminally aware of the music box resuming its song. The urge to run back into the bedroom, to find and break it, was very strong. There was something evil about it.  But part of him knew an inanimate object could in itself never be harmful or menacing. It was just people and their delusions, projecting meaning onto the mundane instead of who was really to blame; their own flawed selves.

He had been thinking about this a lot lately, how easily others and their perceptions could be tricked, how easily the thin rug of peace and sanity could be pulled out from under them.

Or maybe this thing he had tentatively named “the Presence” had been thinking about it.

You're such a hypocrite, a harsh but admittedly honest voice spoke up, that of his younger brother Colin. Here you are, in this smelly old house, convinced there's a presence inside your head that isn't you, convinced you can play with reality or perception of whatever, and you're dissing other people for having fantasies and delusions? Is Mister Head Shrink going totally nuts, just like his patients? Really.

Just because our father was a pompous jerk doesn't mean you have to follow in his footsteps. Wake up, bro.

Though born from a family of wealthy intellectuals, Colin had wanted nothing to do with any of it, instead relocating to the quiet sticks of Mellowbrook instead of the rich suburbs of a town which was rapidly becoming a city.

Quentin had always cared about his brother in his own way. Even though they hadn't talked in years, it was still strong to the point where Colin, or rather, a version of him concocted in Quentin's thoughts, had become a voice of reason, spearing through the disorientation claiming him more and more by passing hours. The insults miffed him, but they also anchored him.

And the Presence was not pleased. It seemed to be getting stronger, like a radio signal being tuned in.

No, no! Get...get away from me!” Through a second, alien set of senses, Quentin suddenly perceived the feelings of a child and an adult at the same time, the voice of someone who had been forced to grow up far too young. The voice of a victim and yet...a survivor.

He dodged her feeble blows, trying not to interrupt this nightmare and thus be deprived of the enlightenment he sought. Curiosity and something darker forced him to come here to this almost empty house, to this girl, a runaway in more ways than one.

He hissed in pain as her blows suddenly grew hard. Her fingernails scratched his hand, her fists pounded. “You...you...what...what have you done? You...” There was sudden viciousness in that stuttering voice, a realization of newfound capacity to hurt those who hurt you.

The Presence tried to blossom even further, to overtake him. He grew dizzy, hot, and rationality began to swim to his own endless depths.

Not yet. Have to see...

It seemed to oblige, but at a price. His fists shot out on their own accord, securing her wrists to prevent any further blows.

D-dad...where is she...where...where is she, dad? N-no...why? Why? Why?”

Her emotions changed, one after another. Shock, fear, rage, and a despair as deep and viscid as oil, one that pooled in the throat and tried to drown the voice.

Quentin saw through her eyes, saw the man who, for a single shattering moment, took on the visage of a demon. Face red with mindless rage, pudgy cheeks scrunched, lip raised to bare the teeth, like a dog in a fight. No pity in that stare, no mercy. Insane. Unreachable.

Leave me alone, let me go! Please, please, just...”

A flash of insight arrived once more along with too-real pictures; someone small and weak collapsing under someone strong, a dead woman sprawled on a kitchen floor, a lamp almost falling over, flickering.

Just like the lights in Sunnygrove when they do their renovations...

And one change in the equation that saved the girl from death: the phone falling off its cradle and clattering to the floor, summoning the apartment complex's front desk, and by extension, police.

But that would never undo what had been done. Quentin didn't know who he was or why he had taken a life. He didn't know how she managed to hold him off, that choking grip.

He saw only bits and pieces, and one glaring wound. Part of this girl still wished she had died.

He felt a sudden, sharp disgust at himself, for eavesdropping on the girl's most painful, intimate memories, but it was more than that. Here was a deep abiding sense of the universe, of its callous, uncaring nature, or so it seemed. That anyone should be allowed to go through such torment, the perpetrators unpunished. The man Quentin was began to resurface, and did not like what he saw, what he was becoming.

How am I able to see this?

He had a realization of his own. Whatever world he was contacting now, it shouldn't be real; the origin point of the entity inside him right now was feeding, inciting deep pain in a dreaming human being, using him as a surrogate, a puppet.

He let go of the girl's wrists and rose to his feet, swaying unsteadily.

The sheer difficulty of this movement, the resistance...as if a part of him was being violently severed, sent fear racing like spooked horses.

The visitor had overstayed its welcome.

Get out.

Its response was unintelligible, cold and chaotic, loud.

He felt himself becoming faint again. The girl was thrashing on the sofa now, head tipped back, hair tossing again over her face. She looked like someone in the throes of a seizure, or a demonic possession.

Possession. Somehow that term seemed so right for what was happening here, happening to him.

For a moment he couldn't breathe. A sort of hysteria took over and he could only watch the girl twitch and writhe, beg and fight. The second set of eyes on the inside were trying to open all the way, to yawn like a vortex, to consume.

He wanted to stare at it, whatever it might be; and banish it with his will. How can you fight an opponent you can't even see? How can you get rid of something that is a part of yourself?

Quentin's soft almost timid voice took on a rough edge. “I'm not yours, and neither is she...”

It was like being on a boat that was assaulted by massive waves, waves of dizziness and pressure relentlessly pounding the hull of his being, thunderous accusations trying desperately to drown resistance, and most of all, it had the hunger and power of an ocean; ancient, implacable.

He lost his equilibrium, falling to the floor and cracking his head on the baseboard. But that's not what knocked him out.

The Presence had him just as the fiend in the girl's dream had her. She fought back, but there was a hand on her throat, a hand wet with blood that could never be put back where it belonged.

The last thing he heard before he was pulled under was the music box, a warped reflection of something once loved.

The End

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