The contortion was accompanied by a crackling and snapping like branches underfoot, breath no more deafening than the faint rustle of leaves. She felt her body shudder with contempt, gripping the loose cotton sleeves of her grey day dress as she watched the body writhe atop the yellowed tiles- eyes sunken into their sockets and rolled up in their head, face frozen into a mask of agony with mouth agape. Her stomach lurched and urged her to turn her head away but her mind disobeyed, intrigued despite the sickening sensations in her gut and only imploring her to peer even closer.
To the left side of her peripheral she could see her father at his desk, facing away from the body on the floor and feverishly scribbling in his notes, muttering incomprehensibly under his breath. The body finally gave way, collapsing limply to the floor and gurgling quietly in its passing and Cassidy suddenly became aware she'd been holding her breath the entire time, letting it out in a low hiss between her teeth. She pressed her white gloved hand against her chest, rubbing her sternum idly as her mind raced and heart hammered heavily against her hand. Head swimming a bit, she rested her back against the cold iron door behind her for support and swallowed though her mouth felt dry.
"You see how they are, Cassidy?" The deep and rumbling voice of her father roused her from her deep thought and she directed her grey gaze to his masked face as he stared back at her through his smudged round bronze-framed spectacles. "They're too sensitive to it. They give in to the pain and the thoughts and let it take them over like this. They make themselves suffer."
Cassidy nodded slightly- hastily- pressing her thin lips firmly together, moving her hand from her chest to her ear to nervously pinch the lobe. "What- um-" she cleared her throat, feeling her voice crack as she'd begun to speak. "What do you... recommend be done about it, Doctor?"
"Mn..." he looked away from her back down at his messy and virtually meaningless array of scribbles. "Perhaps the dosage was too high. Perhaps patients require a pre-procedure training session of sorts. There are many factors at this stage that could have been the cause of what went wrong. It's exciting, isn't it? One big puzzle with only so many pieces... You'll appreciate it more when you're my age and everything starts making sense."
Cassidy let out a soft and empty chuckle, exhaling slowly to calm her pulse. "Yes, Doctor... very exciting."
She pushed away from the door to tentatively make her way to the body, tucking her skirts against her knee as she crouched to get a better look at the distorted and contorted form. She could see where the blood vessels had burst beneath the skin, pink foam bubbling between their lips and spine twisted to a disturbing angle. Brushing her pale hair over her ear she turned her attention to her father again- in part to turn her nose away from the awful smell.
"Are they... dead?"
"Mn- quite," he replied distractedly, gathering his pages together and tapping the edges against the desk. "Don't worry. It'll be cleaned up by morning and you can forget they ever existed."
She doubted she'd forget they existed. Their name was never given to her but she could hardly forget a vision such as this which burned itself into her mind and inevitably her nightmares tonight. Cassidy reached out and carefully closed their eyes with her fingers.
"Your name will be Paul..." she whispered to it. "Thank you for letting us study you, Paul..."
"Darling, it's best you don't get too close to it- it may still be volatile," her father spoke up without turning to her and Cassidy quickly rose to her feet, quickly taking a few steps back. "I'm sure Rosalie could do with some company. Dinner must be nearly ready by now. I'm quite famished myself."
"I'll bring you something if you aren't up soon," Cassidy said, peeling off her gloves and tossing them into the bin beside the door before exiting. She untied and removed her white apron as she jogged down the broad basement hall with its pine green tiles and concrete walls, the fluorescent lights buzzing gently and flickering occasionally. She hung it on the coat rack as she climbed the stairs into the laundry room, emerging from there into the kitchen where the nanny Angelica stood stirring a pot.
"Will Mr. Dolan be eating with us tonight?" The old woman asked with a note of disdain in her tone without looking away from the contents of the bubbling pot.
"We'll see," Cassidy replied breathlessly, rounding the island counter and heading to the pantry to locate a bottle of medicine. "He said he's hungry but we'll see."
"Don't eat any snacks!" Angelica yipped, waving her spoon at her. "You'll spoil your dinner."
"Not snacks," Cassidy huffed, shaking a stomach tablet into her hand and downing it with a tilt of her head. She put the bottle away and hustled to the family room to find the little girl seated on the rug with a partially completed jigsaw puzzle. Cassidy sat down on the floor across from her and watched her for a moment before she said "hi, Rosalie" upon realizing her sister hadn't even noticed her yet.
Rosalie scowled deeply, keeping her gaze glued to the puzzle. "I don't know where this goes..." she murmured pensively, holding a piece up.
"How many pieces is this?"
"Can I help?"
Rosalie wordlessly surrendered the piece in her hand and pointed to part of the illustration that appeared to be a vase of flowers. "That piece has flowers on it so I thought it would go with the other flowers but it doesn't fit."
"Well... these aren't the same flowers. See, those are sunflowers and these are Black-eyed Susans." Cassidy looked around the floor for the box to find a reference of the picture but saw the lid had been painted over with black acrylic. "Who painted the box?"
"Me. I thought it would be cheating," Rosalie murmured, narrowing her eyes at the image. "It's more fun to figure it out yourself."
"Is it..?" Cassidy replied a bit dully.
Rosalie looked up at Cassidy at last, glassy brown eyes clouding with suspicion and concern as she noticed Cassidy's sickly features. "What were you doing with Daddy?"
"Just studying," Cassidy said, pulling her ankles forward so she sat cross-legged. "Big kid things. Doctor things."
"Will I get to study with Daddy, too, when I'm 17?"
"I guess so but I thought you wanted to be a vet?"
"That's an animal doctor. Still a doctor. People aren't THAT different from animals."
"Mn. Well. 8 more years to go." Cassidy pressed her piece into the puzzle on the opposite side and Rosalie's eyes widened.
She frantically dug through her pile of pieces, fishing out a few more with Black-Eyed Susans. "Oh! I know where these go! Move your hand, move your hand!"
"Girls, come eat," Angelica called from the kitchen as she reached for bowls in the cabinet.
"Coming!" Rosalie called back, leaning closer to the puzzle to more precisely place her pieces.
Cassidy sat there watching the girl work with focus, fitting piece after piece as if that one was the only one that held her back. Her head still felt light and dizzy, stomach tightening and fingers cold. Her ears filled the silence with a thick static and a high pitched whine and she felt as though she were sitting in currents, her body swishing lightly forwards and backwards. That face still consumed her sight, lifeless and skin blistering with red and purple and yellow. There was such juxtaposition between what lay in the basement and what happened upstairs- it was as if it had never happened and it was only a bad dream she woke from minutes ago. Yet it was all too real and the proof was still lodged in her olfactory senses.
Angelica must have called for them again as Cassidy was shaken from her thoughts by Rosalie shouting "WE'RE COMING!" louder, getting up from her puzzle and rushing with white stockinged feet to the kitchen, light brown pigtails waving in her wake. Cassidy remained where she sat for a moment, trying to replace the images and sensations in her mind with the soft and curious face of her younger sister, the warmth and savory scent of the soup, the distant sound of mockingbirds in the trees out in the yard. Exciting, her father called it. It was exciting. But not perhaps in the way he intended it to be.
She closed her eyes and exhaled slowly one more time, willing her body to settle itself and fighting the smile nipping at the corners of her lips. She couldn't wait to be a doctor.