Brian Burt - Speculative Fiction

Soul or Eclipse

[Originally published in Talebones.]

Lita Hoile hurried toward the Psychiatric Ward of Munson Hospital as her pager went off for the second time. She spotted Bill Meltzer outside one of the examining rooms, face unusually grim, straw-blond hair mussed where he always ran his fingers through it when a tough case had him stumped.

She willed her eyes to shift his physical features out of focus. The brassy gleam of self-confidence suffused him, surrounding a sickly yellow core of doubt. Wisps of blue swirled around him: compassion, the color that redeemed his faults. And something she rarely saw in Bill - bubbles of lavender floating through the rest, flashes of pastel fireworks. Frustration. Worry. When he returned her wave, the bubbles swelled like pustulent balloons.

The Inner Light hid nothing.

Bill looked thoroughly chagrined. "Sorry to drag you out of session, but I don't have your way with kids."

"Forget it. It's worth the trip just to hear you admit you don't know everything. What have we got?"

"Little girl named Sarah Baxter. Not quite seven, according to her records. Family Services brought her in a couple hours ago. Mama's over in Intensive Care - Daddy beat her to a pulp while the little girl watched. Evidently he's done it before… to both of them. Lita, this kid has scars where no kid should have them."

Bill's Light flared crimson, igniting Lita's own. The color stained her cheeks, her thoughts, her vision; it even bled into her voice. "Christ, you need a license to own a dog in this town, but any psycho with an active sperm count can become a father! Okay… the physical scars will heal. What about the rest?"

Bill sighed. "Preliminary diagnosis: severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Kid's wedged in a corner, nearly catatonic. She just sucks her thumb and stares into space. I've tried talking to her, so have a couple of the nurses. No sale."

Lita nodded. "I'll see what I can do."

The examining room was dimly lit, redolent of antiseptic. A little girl crouched in one corner in a faded jumpsuit covered with leering images of Minnie Mouse. Brown hair drooped across her face in greasy tangles, wide brown eyes oblivious to the presence of another stranger. Behind the glassy stare, magenta clouds of terror roiled inside a tiny, trembling soul. Gashes of livid purple luminesced deep inside: raw, festering bruises of Light. Lita shivered.

The colors of mangled innocence were the hardest to endure… for both the victim and the healer.

Lita knelt a few feet away. "It's okay, Sarah. I'm a friend." She stretched out a hand to stroke the child's emaciated arm. A twitch of muscle as the arm flinched away; a flash of incandescent horror. "Do you like Minnie Mouse?" Fear more muted - a silvery flicker of interest. "We have a lovely, cuddly Minnie Mouse doll in the Play Room. If you come with me, we'll go get something yummy to eat, then we'll go play with Minnie, just the two of us." Flares of magenta punctuated every utterance of the word go.

"We have chocolate pudding in the Cafeteria… all you can eat." Another splash of quicksilver light. Sarah rose on spindly legs, held out the hand that did not have its thumb jammed in her mouth. She did not smile. She did not speak. Her palm was slick and cold, like melting ice.

Oh, Sarah, you've got a long, dark road ahead.

Bill grinned and mouthed a thank-you as Lita led Sarah through the door. Lita steered her down the corridor toward the Cafeteria, scanning for the first glimmer of trouble. A commotion erupted in the Admitting Area ahead, a gruff voice shouting obscenities; the little girl froze, squeezed Lita's hand so tight the knuckles ground together.

Sarah's eyes were blank, but inside… inside was the Fourth of July.

He came lumbering down the corridor: a hulk of a man reeking of old sweat and malt whiskey, features little more than a shadow in Lita's mind. The Light of his pollution blinded her. Flames of orange and vermilion blazed inside him; she could feel the heat of his psychic fever spraying sparks of poison. So sick. Burning from the inside out. Lita grabbed the little girl and held her tight as the Light of terror screamed silently around them.

"What're you doin' wit' my baby girl? You ain't no better than that whore wife o' mine, tryin' to steal a man's baby away. You can't keep her from me. Nobody can."

It happened so fast: Bill chugging past her in a blur, launching himself at a silhouette of fire. Two orderlies sprinted from the opposite direction and dove into the melee. A security guard came running, looking sheepish and confused. Lita could see nothing but flames dancing in the hallway. The orderlies finally wrestled the intruder to the floor. A disheveled Bill Meltzer crawled off the man's chest - huffing and puffing, angrier than she had ever seen him - and tried to straighten his unruly mop of hair. He glared at the security guard, who pointed his pistol between the orderlies, trying to look like he had the situation under control. Bill almost deafened them all.

"Get this piece of garbage off my ward and lock him up somewhere until the police can slam his butt into jail where it belongs. And don't ever — EVER — let a psycho like this slip through Admitting again. You got me?"

The orderlies pulled Sarah's father to his feet and dragged him down the hall, security guard trailing warily behind them. Bill dusted off his chinos, cursing and muttering. "You two okay? Earth to Lita… are you all right?"

She could not answer. She could only stare at the misshapen ball of fire retreating down the corridor. The Light of Sarah Baxter's father spat red and orange virulence in every direction… except one. A line of darkness nibbled at the edge of him, curved across the molten surface of his soul like the shadow of some invisible moon.

The man's soul was in eclipse.