Something was niggling at the back of Carmilla’s mind; like a worm wriggling around inside an apple.
But with the adrenaline burning its way through her system like the memory of a circulation she’d once had... and with everything else going on she couldn’t quite seem to put her finger on it.
It was something Laura had said in the library.
What was it?
She was trying her best to remember but all the words her roommate had thrown her way the last time they’d seen each other seemed to meld into an indecipherable cluster behind her eyes; melting on top of each other whenever she tried to form anything concrete. Replaced by an image of the hurt look on the blonde’s face. The betrayal and anchorlessness there.
She wasn’t sure that was something she was ever likely to forget.
Groaning with frustration Carmilla made another attempt to find some clarity as she walked along the corridor.
Tried to remind herself she was doing all of this for the tiny human. To keep her safe.
And that had to count in her favour right?
That was something to add to the scales when everything was said and....
Sneaking through the double doors in front of her, all coherent thought stopped in its tracks as her jaw fell open.
Carmilla had borne witness to a lot of things in her time. Somehow though, after all her mother’s whispered promises of infinity and answers, life had become a series of grotesque and perverse moments mingling with the tedious monotony of everyday living.
Pretending to be nothing more than a care-free eighteen year old when you’d held men’s throats in your hand and felt their larynx contract with a convulsive skirl was kind of a joke when all you wanted to know was why you were here.
A horrifying blood-on-your fingers kind of joke but a joke nonetheless.
This wasn’t though.
This didn’t even come close.
Staring around the room, trying to take in as much detail as she could Carmilla counted up the bed frames glinting dully at her.
Eight beds- nothing unusual in that.
Except for the fact that the beds and their sleeping occupants weren’t lined up on the floor. They were suspended on the rooms walls, each white frame solidly hammered into the cinderblocks behind with heavy duty nails. Perfectly vertical; limbs pinioned tightly under tucked-in blankets.
Almost Catholic in their positioning.
Her mouth open, Carmilla wondered for a brief moment how the students stayed in position even with the sedative they seemed to have been given but then her sharp eyes caught a series of small buckles and leather straps peeking out from the hospital corners of the linen.
They’re strapped in as well.
Was that to keep them safe? Or to keep us safe from them?
Taking a silent step forward in the buzzing overhead light, she blinked a little as she stared up at the parade of beds, each one so perfectly spaced that the whole thing reminded her of the dinner tables she had found herself seated at during Styria’s period of gentrification. So many cutleries to her left and right that the urge to simply use her fingers had caused her to tuck them delicately under each other on her lap.
Lost in the memory she reached up for a moment and let her fingertips touch the hem of a scratchy blanket readying herself to pull on it.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
She jumped back with an imperceptible gasp.
Cursing herself at the raggedness of her own breathing though no human would notice it.
Peering into the dim corner of the room where the voice had come from Carmilla noticed then that a small single cot was pushed against the far wall, a huddle of white linen bunched on top away from the dull gleam of the central strip lights above.
“Who said that?” she hissed.
“Nobody of any consequence,” said the huddle. “Or a somebody that consequence didn’t feel worth their time I guess.”
Carmilla straightened up putting on the best game face she could manage with a heaving chest and began moving towards the mysterious person.
“You know what? This whole thing is getting a little bit too Lewis Carroll for my taste so you really need to show yourself right now.”
And if you turn out to be a caterpillar smoking a hookah I’m gonna lose my shit, she added internally.
Peering closer, she watched as a small head slowly emerged from the blanket before a pair of thin arms followed clutching the cotton bedcover tightly.
It was a girl. A thin, wild eyed girl with limp unwashed hair but human at least and clearly as shocked by her presence here as she was.
“So...” She hesitated. “You...didn’t feel like being strapped to the wall today?”
The girl smiled a little; a sad imitation of one at least. “That’s for the special guests not long term residents.”
The brunette took another step closer. “And why shouldn’t I touch them?”
“They’ve been given Midazolam. It keeps you out of it but it’s only a conscious sedation. Physical stimulus cuts right through it. And then they’ll start with the talking and the shouting. That’s when the nurses come.” She licked her lips. “I get the impression you’re not looking for an audience.”
“Smart.” Carmilla flicked her eyes to the end of the small bed and watched as the girl nodded imperceptibly. Taking that as confirmation enough, she sat down gingerly on the threadbare coverlet. “What’s an insightful girl like you doing in a place like this?”
“Living the college dream, can’t you tell?” She swallowed dryly. “I thought getting away from home might help somehow. Reset something in my...” She touched her forehead. “In here. Didn’t work out quite the way I planned though.”
She cocked her head then. “Did you know the first madhouses were run by clergymen? They didn’t believe in medication so they prescribed regular attendance in church and pilgrimages to religious shrines.”
Carmilla grinned. “And how did that work out for them?”
“Shockingly, not great.” The student scratched at the skin on her left hand. ““They tried to cure the mentally disturbed by encouraging them to confess their sins and seek refuge in God’s mercy.”
Even with the peculiarity of the conversation Carmilla felt a darkness pass over her face for a moment. “I should think the big guy has his hands full with the supposedly sane let alone the rest of us.”
A pair of eyes bore into her.
The brunette offered up a shrug, “The power of Christ...not that compelling when you’ve seen behind the curtain once or twice.”
“People like me...like us... I think we’re destined to be the afterthought.”
Just then a soft creaking from above cut through the quiet and both of their heads turned towards the other side of the room. A soft troubled breath followed but died off falling into silence again.
The girl pursed her lips. “It’s just a muscle spasm. The human body’s not used to being knocked out all the time.”
Suddenly those weary blue eyes sharpened. “Not that you need to worry about that. Why are you here?”
Unsure whether to deny or confirm the unanswered accusation hidden beneath the comment. But she needed to know what was going on here, to make sure Laura wouldn’t be in any more danger. That’s all that really mattered, wasn’t it?
So she trained her gaze on the other girl’s, holding her fingers still to keep them from picking at the fabric underneath them.
“My roommate. Uh, friend. She had a run in with the things that I think have been doing this to students on campus. I need to find out how to stop them before they hurt anyone else.”
A pause followed.
“A noble vampire. Some would say that’s an oxymoron,” replied the girl softly.
“Some might say the same of a lucid psych patient.”
“The preferred term would be mental health service recipient. Didn’t you see the posters?”
A little taken aback, Carmilla’s cheeks flamed a little at her own ineloquence and she was just about to try and form some kind of apology when she caught the brief twinkle in those blue eyes and nudged the leg buried under the coverlet nearest her with a harumph.
“Sorry... I don’t get much chance to poke fun at people in here.” The girl giggled.
“No problem.” Carmilla deadpanned. “I’m all about comedy, me.”
Flashing eyes greeted her before dulling a little.
“You’re right though. The rest of them in here- it’s something different. Something I’ve never seen before. My parents, they dropped me off in here six weeks ago before any of...this.” She picked up on the inquisitive look on her guest’s face and wrinkled up her nose. “They couldn’t take the shame of their daughter coming home from college every other day because the only place she can sleep is her childhood bedroom. The neighbours started talking. And when neighbours tongues start wagging, family lips clamp shut. No more visits mean no more problem. ”
The growl escaped the vampire’s lips before she could stop it and the student reached out to lay her hand gently on top of Carmilla’s; to her credit, barely even flinching at its coldness.
“They’re suburban people. All they have are suburban solutions.”
“And that doesn’t burn you up inside?! That they turned their back on you when you needed them?”
Her nose scrunched up again as she retracted her hand and cradled it against her ribs. “They love me. They just don’t know how to help me. Why would I be mad at them for that when I’m as clueless as they are on the subject?”
She breathed out tiredly as if it was a conversation she’d had with herself many times before. “Your friend’s lucky though, to have someone willing to walk into a place like this on the off-chance they might find the answer.”
A flash of Laura’s sleepy smiling face lying next to her in bed flung itself into Carmilla’s mind at that and she found herself grinning a little at the memory, wishing they had just stayed there cocooned in that place. With skin and blankets and walls between them and the world outside.
“She must be quite something.”
The brunette shook the thought away and slid her foot underneath herself. “She’s more than anyone could ever know.”
She sobered up for a moment.
“So you’ve had an inside view of this thing from the beginning?”
The rattle of metal on metal rang out in the suspended bed closest to them for a moment before receding again.
“If it’s a view worth having.”
Carmilla’s cast iron stomach lurched in a way it hadn’t done for years at the despondency laced underneath those words and she inched a tiny bit closer to the other occupant of the bed.
“Is there anything you can tell me that might help? Maybe... between the two of us we can make a difference here.”
The sallow girl grinned then. “All right, Tony Robbins. No need to get your microphone out.” She took a breath and placed her hands flat on the blanket. “To be honest, everything seemed pretty normal at first. I was the only one in here but I had my books and my music so it wasn’t that bad you know? But then they brought a newbie in. Rachel. She seemed all right for the first few days. A little spacey at times but friendly enough; she even asked to borrow my Lissie albums when she leant me her curlers. But then...she started having trouble finding the words for things. Like forming sentences or something. I thought it might have been meds they put her on but I never saw them give her anything off the tray... ”
She shifted around on the bed. “When the second one came in, it got worse. Quickly. Like they sparked off each other or they re-infected each other or something. Rachel stopped speaking almost immediately apart from shouting out these random words. She’d shout something obscure then the new guy would yell out the word’s definition. Back and forth like that. For hours. No small talk, no conversation. Just a live game of dictionaries R us.”
Carmilla frowned as a shiver ran through her spine, her mind scrabbling around to try and remember if Laura had shown any of those symptoms last night. She couldn’t be sure, she’d seemed ok... well as ok as anyone would be given what she’d been through but Carmilla kept herself from interrupting nonetheless.
Memory girl, my ass she thought acidly
“It was only when three more were admitted that the nurses picked up on it. That they were affecting each other like that. And they begged the doctors to move everyone into separate rooms but with the numbers being brought in going up and up, I guess they just didn’t have the room so the request was denied. They decided to strap them into the beds with mouth guards.”
The girl noticed Carmilla’s grimace. “It could have been worse. We should probably be glad they didn’t resort to iron collars and leeches.” She rubbed at her left eye. “Anyway the nurses were all up in arms because they didn’t know what else to do. And it was just before they strapped them all in that I noticed....”
She looked a little reluctant to answer this time and Carmilla threw her an encouraging smile.
“Their faces. This might sound insane but they were all...becoming the same. Like physically changing. I thought I was going mad...”
She rolled her eyes at Carmilla as she went to say something.
“...Yes yes the irony. I know. But their eyes...it was like they changed the longer they were here. Until they didn’t even look like themselves anymore. Until they weren’t themselves anymore.
The vampire tried to absorb all of that as she leant back against the wall resting a backbone that seemed to ache terribly all of a sudden. Everything the girl had said fit with the things that Laura and her had seen for themselves and something inside told her that she was telling the truth.
But it didn’t help much with figuring out what the cause of this thing might be. Or how to stop it.
More than anything she wished Laura was here beside her. She’d come up with some crazy implausible theory if she’d heard all this. There wasn’t a doubt in her mind.
She huffed out a breath and nodded towards the nearest bed.
“So whose idea was the horror movie sleeping arrangements?”
“Not the doctors or the nurses that’s for sure. They’re kind of ok most of the time if you have a sense of humour. Honestly, I was pretty out of it when some woman in a power suit just marched in with a team of carpenters and ordered the changes effective immediately. The staff weren’t happy about it, hell, they even threatened to walk out but she threatened them back with an NBA or something and they all shut up after that.”
“Must have been an NDA.” Hmmmed Carmilla. “Non disclosure agreement. Weird thing for university staff to have to sign but not when you consider this is Silas...maybe not.”
“Anyway, the woman ordered a mass sedation, muttered something about one mutiny being enough then she was gone again. I figured she was the Chancellor or something like that. They all gave her that stupid college salute.”
Every muscle in Carmilla’s body seized up momentarily and her eyes blew wide.
“What...what did she look like?”
She considered that for a second. “Dark hair pulled back of her face. Cold eyes. Kind of cruel face you know? Not a people person if you get what I mean.”
God, It couldn’t be.
She was dead.
Carmilla struggled to contain the rising tide of fear building up inside her abdomen as the possibility broke over her. The Dean. Her Mother was alive.
Had somehow recovered from the battle in the Pit that should have ended her.
And was back running things behind the scenes again without anyone even knowing she was alive and well. As if nothing had happened at all.
Carmilla brought her eyes up to find the girl peering curiously at her.
“Do you know who she is?”
The brunette jerked away as fingertips brushed her knuckles; too shaken up to even apologise for the action.
As she turned away from the quizzical expression in front of her, her brain screamed wildly that she was allowing herself to jump to conclusions. Assuming the worst when it was barely even possible.
But just as she felt her jaw unlock a touch, enough to maybe even try and form a word or two the sound of squeaking wheels slid underneath the doors announcing someone’s intention to come in and she was on her feet in a heartbeat; a new wave of dread shooting through her system.
Looking about her with horror, she was scanning the room for somewhere to hide trying her best to keep from throwing up where she stood when a hand wrapped itself around her wrist and dragged her sideways.
It took her a moment to work out what was happening when she saw the girl pointing towards the space under her bed. It took less than that for her to drop to the floor and slither underneath dragging the edge of the blanket down to cover some of the gap.
She’d only just pulled her ankles under when the doors burst open and two orderlies pushed in a trolley alongside them.
“Order up,” One said snickering and Carmilla immediately had the urge to punch him in the mouth though her view of his face was partially obscured. “Did someone ask for the Humanities student served with a side of tranquilliser?
That urge transformed almost immediately into rage however when he lifted a prone body off the trolley into his arms and she caught a glimpse of that familiar honey blonde hair hanging down across his shoulder.
That was Laura he was holding.
And she was unconscious.
A snarl built low in her throat as her body moved of its own accord starting to wriggle out of its hiding place when a leg came down in front of her vision blocking her escape.
She tried to push it out of the way but it held firm pushing back against her face and neck.
Keeping her there before she did something incredibly stupid.
And got them all killed.