Image Credit: Natalie Shau
“Do you believe in love at first sight, Doctor?”
Dr. Alvin Stankowski frowned slightly as he peered through wire-framed lenses at his disheveled, white-haired, colleague, “Mad Manning”. He calmly and deliberately brushed his own perfectly creased and spotless lab-coat and smoothed one dark hair from his forehead.
Stankowski allowed himself to be led to Manning’s office as he pondered the enigmatic professor in front of him. Apparently, Manning’s reputation for absent-minded brilliance was not exaggerated. His unruly shock of white hair and ruffled demeanor certainly attested to his absent-mindedness. Manning’s office, like the man himself, was a cluttered affair in desperate need of organizing. Stankowski seated himself in a lush easy chair that, while comfortable, had obviously seen better days. Manning sat behind his desk in a more utilitarian office chair, directly in front of an old oil painting depicting a great naval battle. His redwood desk was littered with what appeared to numerous student papers from his classes, a few technical journals unfamiliar to Stankowski, as well as something that was decidedly out of place in the office of a professor of Science. Breaching etiquette, Stankowski reached over and picked up a dilapidated book with the title of “Mythical and Fabulous Creatures” and sharply thumbed through the dog-eared pages, stopping to read a marked section.
Not seeming to mind Stankowski’s brashness, Manning laughed gently as Stankowski fingered the book. “I’m entertaining every possibility Doctor. Even the fantastic and improbable.” He motioned toward the book in Stankowski’s hands, “That book is a compilation of essays and papers written about mythical species and their place in history. In a sense, it’s the only case-study I have.” He waggled a playful finger at Stankowski, “No judgments yet. Suspend disbelief for a while longer, if you please.”
“Then your e-mail was serious?” Stankowski broached the subject carefully without acknowledging Manning’s humor. He regretted his five-word e-mail reply to Manning; “I want to see the subject”. It was rather unlike himself to speak out of turn or with so little thought. Stankowski was troubled by his reaction, but didn’t let it affect his outward stoicism.
Manning looked from under his bushy eyebrows at Stankowski, an irritated and direct glance that was quite out of character for the normally mousy professor. Manning was famous for his infectious nervous energy. Instead of answering the question, he opened up a humidor and produced two cigars. “Do you smoke, Doctor?” Stankowski nodded and accepted the proffered cigar, staring at the unfamiliar label.
“It’s a Bahia, from Trinidad,” offered Manning. “I stumbled across them a few months ago when my favorite smoke shop was out of my regular cigar, Romeo y Julieta. Old Jack, the proprietor, suggested I try the Bahia. I was so impressed with the cigar that I immediately depleted his stock and filled my humidor with them.” He looked wistfully at his cigar, “I fell in love with them.”
Producing his own cutter and lighter, Stankowski mulled over his next question as he deliberately rolled his cigar over the flame. With a sigh of satisfaction, he let a thick cloud of smoke rise to the ceiling; “Tell me Doctor; how did the, ah, subject come to be under your care?”
“That story is long in the telling and will require some time. But hey!” He stood and walked around his desk, “a good smoke is nothing without good conversation.”
Swiveling another easy chair in place besides Stankowski’s, Manning seated himself in it and began straightaway. “You are perhaps familiar with the fact that I donate a bit of my time to the inner-city Emotional Crisis center, which is funded in part by our prestigious University?”
Stankowski nodded, “You are well-spoken of for your civic-minded life.”
Manning inclined his head, accepting the compliment, “Slightly more than two months ago we received a startling influx of patients who were desperately in love.”
Stankowski laughed, surprising himself, “It is spring, Doctor. Love is in the air, I suppose.”
Manning grinned with him, “I myself have never found the time to meet that special someone about whom sonnets are written and songs are sung. Neither have you, if your bare finger bears truthful witness, Doctor.”
Stankowski frowned; the humor fading as he unconsciously rubbed his ring finger, “The patients?”
“Ah yes. Thirty-seven men of varying ages checked themselves into the clinic for help. Some were old and weathered like me. Others were in the prime of life, late thirties, like you. Still others were teenagers and young men in their twenties. There was no obvious correlation at first, save that all were driven to distraction by their emotions. Some were even experiencing eating and sleep disorders.
“They seemed to need little physiological assistance, but our graduate students in Psychology had their hands full. As you are most likely aware, Doctor, our Crisis Center is popular because one needs not have insurance to cover the cost of treatment. Our generosity is freely given, with the caveat that most of our staff consists of students and volunteers; persons with serious problems should seek assistance elsewhere. In fact, I am usually the only true Doctor in the building and only I can conduct medical examinations and prescribe medications, if they are needed.”
“Did they all check in at the same time?” asked Stankowski.
“Oh goodness no,” said Manning. “This went on for about two weeks. We were completely puzzled by each individual case, let me assure you. We provided what assistance we could, and all seemed to fare well. Most were discharged after only a few days. It was like a spell was cast on them. A spell that wore off after a week and left the recipient weary and confused.”
“There was still no correlation?” Stankowski asked. “No commonality, or similarity between the cases?”
Manning shook his head, looking rather like a mangy lion, “You must understand that hundreds of people come to the clinic every week. These thirty-five were but a drop in the proverbial bucket, soon forgotten in the press of other, more important, emergencies. It wasn’t until later that I got suspicious.
“I was working late on a Saturday night at the clinic. I was compiling a list of similar cases for the month-end report. Thirty-seven men in love seems small when compared to the hundreds of domestic abuse cases, thousands of drug problems, and multitudes of other crisis that comprise normal life in the inner city.
“It was precisely for that reason, though, that these cases caught my attention. I work with drug dealers, addicts, broken-homes, and violence on a regular basis at the clinic and, sadly, I am somewhat hardened to it. But the small, insignificant pile of casework about men in love reached out to me.
“I stopped entering mindless numbers into the database and read through the ‘Love Files’ as I have since come to call them.” Manning reached into the middle of the pile of papers on his desk and withdrew a large manila envelope, which he handed to Stankowski. “Here is a copy I made for you. They make for interesting reading. The subjects come from all walks of life. Some are African-American, some are Hispanic, others Caucasian. One is a lawyer. Another is a steelworker at the downtown plant. Some are grocery clerks, computer programmers, and retail managers.”
Stankowski opened up the envelope and spent a minute thumbing through the case files. At length, he broke the silence with a sudden hiss, pulling out a single case. He held it up for Manning to see, “And this one? This belongs in the Love Files as well?”
Manning took the paper, glanced at it, and then handed it back. “It seems the affect is not gender-specific. This woman also felt the lure of the Love Spell and sought help. I refrained from singling her out until I could accumulate more data. I have had close to two weeks of intensive study and I have not yet acquired enough data to make a hypothesis one way or the other.”
Stankowski looked up from the paper, his brows raised in askance.
“Oh no,” said Manning hastily, “I am not merely saying that to withhold information. That seems to be the wont of too many of us professors, doesn’t it? I am being cautious, however. I am beginning to formulate some opinions, though, which can be dangerous. That’s why I asked sought you out. I need a fresh set of eyes and a bright mind to offset my senile one. I fear becoming too familiar, of losing objectivity, and most especially I fear the formulation of opinions that might block my path to the Truth.”
Stankowski nodded in approval, “I am impressed, Doctor. Few people have the conviction or perception to realize that help may be needed. You are right, of course. If I do decide to join you in studying this subject, we would do well to remember our weaknesses. Working together, we can assure that we will not lose our objectivity or formulate undue opinions.”
Manning drew from his cigar, savoring the flavor before speaking, “I am not quite the Mad Doctor that I am made to be. To continue, though! After studying the cases, I almost missed the most important detail.”
“That all these men, and woman,” said Manning deliberately, “were all in love with the same person! It took me three iterations of reading the case files before I dimly saw that in the weave. In all of these cases, the central figure was a young woman named Maria Hernandez.”
“Maria Hernandez,” Stankowski muttered, feeling the name in his mouth. “The subject. I’m afraid I’m jumping ahead, but is there anything special about this woman? Anything that would warrant such feelings of love from thirty-seven men and a woman?”
Manning shook his head slowly; “Her past is completely normal as far as I have been able to ascertain. She was born to a Cuban mother and a Caucasian father seventeen years ago in January. She had a normal childhood with public education, birthday parties, high-school dances, and recently a minimum-wage job. Her father is a cable-television installer and her mother is an executive secretary.”
Stankowski shook his head, not understanding. “Did anything special happen to trigger this ability of her to make people fall in love with her? Was there any catalyst?”
“None that I can, as yet, determine. Perhaps you can fare better than I have.”
Stankowski hesitated, taking a long pull from his cigar before asking, “Is she sexually active?”
“No,” Manning stated matter-of-factly. “That was one of the first questions I put to her and her family. She was raised by devout Catholics who are very aware of the dangers of sex in today’s world. She is still a virgin by claim, and examination verifies it. I can find no reason thus far why hundreds of people should fall in love with her.”
Stankowski looked up sharply, “Hundreds? We have been talking about thirty-eight people to date. Is there more that I am unaware of?”
Manning held up a wrinkled hand, “No, Doctor. Not much more can I tell you before you should meet with her. Only thirty-eight people sought help. Thirty-eight out of how many she affected, though? I’m sure the count numbers in the hundreds, if not the thousands. We live in a large city, after all.”
Stankowski nodded, “It was obvious even as I exclaimed in surprise. Of course only a minuscule fraction of those affected found the clinic.” He placed his cigar in the ashtray and slapped his knees, “Well! Should we not go and introduce me to Ms. Hernandez?”
Manning’s upraised finger held Stankowski in his seat, “One last detail that is of the utmost importance.”
Stankowski waited, but Manning seemed determined to let the moment play itself out. At length, he spoke, “The effect is growing stronger.”
“What do you mean, ‘growing stronger’?”
“Why just that. When she was first admitted, one had to look into her eyes to get a dose of Love cast upon you. Now, one merely needs to look at her – any part of her. After examining the Love Files and recognizing the central figure, I sought the parents of young Ms. Hernandez. They were in a positive state of panic when I approached their modest home. Her house was surrounded by scores of people of all ages and walks of life – all waiting for the slightest glimpse of their daughter. I persuaded them to admit her at the clinic, an easy sell as they were at their wits end. Since then, for nearly two weeks, I have observed as daily her Love Spell gets stronger and stronger.”
Stankowski sat back in the chair, aghast. “How then shall I protect myself from her wiles?”
Manning looked old and weary as he replied; “You cannot protect yourself. The very act of studying her affects you. Even this old man is not immune.”
“What about closed-circuit camera? Remote interviews?”
“No help. At first, I assumed that she cast her ‘spell’ through pheromones; some chemical agent cast away from her that endeared her to those around her. I set up video cameras and tried to conduct remote interviews to no avail. I was soon smitten as if I were standing in the same room with her.”
Stankowski removed his glasses and cleaned them with a handkerchief, thinking furiously. “What about voice interviews? Surely that is safe and can at least get us a start, a beginning, at true objectivity.”
“Her voice is the music of angels and will pluck at your heartstrings, Doctor. This, too, have I tried. No success there, either, I’m afraid. There are now some two-dozen grad students walking around campus who have tried my varying methods of objective communication. All of them are helplessly in love with Maria Hernandez. I had to bar them from the laboratory as they would all do anything asked of them to prove their love for her.”
Stankowski slumped in the chair, defeated. “How can we be objective when we are smitten by the same spell? Unless…” He was quiet for a moment as an obvious idea worked itself out in his mind.
Impatient, Manning asked, “What? What is it?”
“Touch! If voice and sight and, presumably smell have all failed, we will try touch. I will approach her with plugs in my nose and ears, and a blindfold over my eyes. At the least, I can get tissue and blood samples from her in this manner without being “infected” myself.” A glint of humor entered his eyes, “The only remaining sense is taste and, as I have no intention of licking our subject, we can rule that one out.”
Manning stood, and the years seemed to fall away as hope again entered his eyes, “You have given me hope, Doctor. A small hope to be sure, but it is hope nonetheless. I fear we are doomed to failure in this as well. Perhaps we can use the Internet to communicate via e-mail with her. That should prove effective at least for our verbal requirements, no? Come though! Let us go prepare for your first “touch” of Maria Hernandez. Our first blood and tissue samples will hopefully prove enlightening!”
“First samples, Doctor?” Stankowski frowned as he stood and made his way to the door. “You have been observing Ms. Hernandez for two weeks. How is it that you have not acquired these sample previously?”
Manning looked away, “I, too, have fallen prey to her spell, Doctor. It is why I called upon you. My objectivity is almost completely gone. I cannot bear to harm her tender flesh. To garner the required samples, I would be forced to do harm to her. And that,” he enunciated carefully, “is something I cannot do.”
* * *
Stankowski sat in a small spartan office at the clinic readying himself for what he was humorlessly calling “first contact”. There was no doubt in his mind that if Manning’s suppositions and observations were correct, a great and momentous opportunity now presented itself. What manner of person could affect a person’s emotions as Maria Hernandez supposedly could? The concept of love at first sight suddenly became a reality instead of an oft wished-for fantasy.
This talk of love was unsettling for Stankowski. Manning’s direct reference to the absence of wedding band on his finger had surprisingly wounded him. At thirty-nine, he had never felt the loss of love in his life. Loss was perhaps the incorrect word he chided himself. You cannot lose that which you never had. He was a successful geneticist and professor who loved his job and enjoyed the grants and federal aid lent towards his research. His love life wasn’t lacking; he had had a few female companions throughout the years. He had just never desired or seriously entertained the idea of marriage. In all honesty, he could not actually remember ever being in a state that he would define as love.
Children almost inevitably came about as a by-product of marriage. That was a topic he was distinctly uncomfortable with. The time and energy required to raise a child would be quite beyond him. His work was too demanding. Too many people required his services and knowledge. A child would take him away from that. He could, through intellectual discourse, understand the need for children, but his feelings would ever be ambivalent on the subject.
Shrugging his thoughts aside, Stankowski composed himself by carefully erasing a line in his notebook and replacing it with a new, updated, entry. His notebook was perhaps as much a part of him as his thick, glossy hair. It was ever present at his side and, at any given moment, he might suddenly turn insightful and pen another entry within its pages. Many were the people who wondered what secrets his notebook held. They would have been disappointed to discover that only professional statements and queries dealing with his work were bound inside. The occasional grocery list was at times penned within for convenience, but that was as far as the dark secrets of the book went.
Without preamble, Manning let himself into the office, closing the door behind him with more force than was strictly necessary. Stankowski looked up in annoyance from his notebook, but stopped short of comment as he caught the eye of Manning. His breath was coming in gasps as if he had run from one end of the clinic to another and his normally unkempt white hair was even wilder than usual. The cause for the condition of his hair was immediately obvious as Manning ran two gnarly hands through it, tugging and twisting it in short, desperate measures.
Standing, Stankowski approached Manning, gently touching his sleeve in a familiar gesture, “What is the matter? What has happened?” Thoughts of lost opportunities with Ms. Hernandez were running through his mind,
“There is nothing wrong with the subject, I fear?”
Manning stared a moment at Stankowski, uncomprehending. Gradually, though, he returned to himself. When he was in command of his faculties once again, he spoke, “I have just come from a brief visit with Maria.”
Stankowski frowned at Manning’s use of her given name rather than her family name. Manning became aware of the disapproval; “Forgive me, Doctor. It is very unsettling to deal with this remarkable young lady. I find myself wanting to spend more and more time in her presence and only with great difficulty can I bring myself to leave her side. If ever there was a drug addict who suffered so from withdrawal, I should like to meet him and exchange stories!”
Stankowski sighed, an expression he usually reserved for wayward children who bumped him in the subway or for students who asked him to repeat something. “Doctor, let us review the plan for my initial visit. I do not wish to have any communication errors. I will essentially become blind and deaf to the world as I enter that chamber. You will be observing from the video room, via the remote camera.”
Manning attempted to straighten his lab coat as he listened, but the effort was futile on a garment determined to act adversely. “Quite right, Doctor. You are to enter and get a blood sample and a tissue sample from her, then exit with haste. Ms. Hernandez has agreed to this course of action and will be sitting on the bed in the southwest corner of the room. You will enter via a door on the east side of the room. The tools you will need to gather the samples are on a tray next to the bed.”
Stankowski stood and gathered his notebook and writing utensils. Manning positioned himself in front Stankowski and grabbed his shoulders, taking unprecedented liberty. His eyes were bright and his grip was cold and unyielding. His voice, when he spoke, was hardly more than a whisper. “I fear that even the touch of her will corrupt your will. You must listen carefully to what I now say.”
Stankowski stepped back in alarm from the suddenly dangerous-looking Manning. “Really, Doctor. If you insist on acting like a barbarian, you will find that our partnership will soon come to an end.” Setting his notebook down, he straightened the wrinkles inflicted upon his jacket by Manning’s hands. “You must credit me at least a modicum of common sense, Doctor. I have absolutely no intention of removing my plugs or taking off my mask. Even should I become a victim of her spell, I will retain my free will.”
Manning shook his head savagely, but did not approach any closer, a fact for which Stankowski was grateful. “I thought as you!” he hissed. “I thought myself strong. I am a Doctor! My whole life is a reasoning and structured existence brought about by my strength of will alone.” He sat down heavily in the seat that Stankowski had recently vacated, “But I was wrong. I have never been in love, until now. I had no idea what it was like. I had no power strong enough within me to resist.”
Stiffly, Stankowski replied, “Regardless. I must make the attempt, though I am doomed in the undertaking of it. I do not believe that I am in any serious danger, however.”
“Whatever you do, Stankowski, do not look into her eyes.”
Stankowski jumped at the use of his name. The use of his name without the preceding title was not a privilege he afforded just anyone. With a slight effort, he controlled his ire. Manning was obviously more shaken by his visit with Ms. Hernandez than he had first realized. The familiarity of using his name seemed to comfort Manning somewhat. He would allow it to pass for now.
Stankowski asked, “Is the effect stronger in her eyes, then? That is where you said it first originated, is it not?”
Manning nodded, “It started in her eyes, then seemed to spread outward from her like a living creature. It is the eyes, though, that are the source of her power; or so it seems to me. The effect is strongest there.” He looked up with sunken eyes, “It seems to be mutating there.”
“Mutating?” Stankowski exclaimed with alarm, “What do you mean, Doctor?”
“Her eyes no longer confuse the emotions towards love. Yesterday, a grad student who was unfortunately afflicted by her spell looked into her eyes and was felled like a tree. I was in the room as well, getting hair follicles from the mattress she sleeps on as it happened. Ms. Hernandez wears sunglasses when we are in the room because the effect has always been greatest around her eyes. Apparently, a mote of dust got into her eye and she was forced to remove her glasses to work the offending object out. The grad student looked into her eyes and immediately fell unconscious. He crumpled to the floor in an ungainly heap.”
“Good God, man!” Stankowski paced about the small office, “Are you suggesting that her gaze is now detrimental? That a glimpse of her eyes will render unconscious all who dare look?”
Manning continued, “When I realized what had happened, I performed a quick examination on the student. His face was smiling, like a child in slumber, yet his vital signs were weak indeed. I had a difficult time confirming his pulse. Even as I was checking, though, he seemed to recover. His heart began to beat heartily inside his chest and his breathing became deep and sure. In due time, he regained consciousness and seemed none the worse for the experience, although I have him under close scrutiny. The only immediate problem I can perceive is that he seems to be suffering more than is usual under the burden of the Love Spell.”
Shaken, Stankowski replied, “Your advice is well-taken, Doctor. You have brought the danger in this experiment close to home. I will heed your advice. I do not anticipate being affected by the spell she casts, but should I fall victim to it, I will not look into her eyes. Ever.”
Manning grinned, a bit of his habitual nervously excited energy returning, “That’s settled, then. An ounce of prevention, and all that.”
Stankowski raised his hand, smooth and uncalloused, “Are there any more surprises or secrets I should be aware of, Doctor? I am perplexed and unhappy by your reluctance in feeding me all the information I need to perform adequately and to protect myself.“
“I am truly apologetic, Doctor.” Manning said with true contriteness in his eyes, “This case is taking its toll on me. It is for that reason I asked for your assistance. I am losing my objectivity and my edge. “
Stankowski didn’t reply, thinking. What new and odd behaviors would he evince if he were affected? He had witnessed many times the strangeness of average people who were in love. An honest and sensible gentleman might become a cutthroat thief for the love of a woman. He did not profess to understand how or why this happened, so he was in no position to judge. As pathetic as Manning seemed to have become, Stankowski decided that he must reserve judgment until he, too, had been tempered by the fire. Oddly enough, as he left the room, his thoughts drifted to a brief romance he had shared with a woman many years before.
* * *
Stankowski was sure he looked the perfect fool. A thick black blindfold made of fine velvet had replaced his glasses. Rubber plugs were stuffed painfully into each nostril. Foam earplugs were inserted into his ears and noise-reduction headphones were covering them.
He was already nursing a bruise on his shin. He cursed himself for a fool again. He had requested that Ms. Hernandez be placed in the southwest corner of the room. That corner was the furthest from the door and behind the bed. Upon entering the room he had immediately walked into a small wardrobe and had banged his leg.
His confident walk had been disposed of in favor of hesitant shuffling and outstretched arms. He navigated his way to the bed with no further incident; one small victory. He stopped and considered his options.
Thus far, he had behaved very irrationally, or so he thought. As a man of science, he was filled with a burning curiosity to know all things. Curiosity unchecked was foolhardy and dangerous. He had always tempered his curiosity with a strong sense of caution. In the space of a few hours he had exhibited impatience with those around him, asked brash questions, and agreed to a risky procedure without so much as a second thought. His caution, an ever-vigilant companion, seemed to have left him.
There was really only one explanation, he realized suddenly. He sat heavily on the bed, shocked to the core by his revelation. He was infected himself. He was acting under the influence of the Love Spell. How could such a thing be possible? He had yet to have any type of contact with Ms. Hernandez.
Doctor Manning. The epiphany hit him with a clarity that caused his head to hurt. Manning was infected. He had somehow passed the infection to Stankowski. He had been infected from the start. His first contact with Manning had resulted in impatience, excitement, and emotional fluctuation of the like Stankowski could not recall ever having. Such aberrant behavior was highly unusually for a man such as himself.
Not being infected from the source, Ms. Hernandez herself, Stankowski had contracted a lesser form of the infection. He felt no obligation to Ms. Hernandez but was experiencing emotional abnormalities. His judgment was impaired. It was impossible to tell how badly he was affected, he realized. Does a madman know he’s mad, Stankowski thought with bleak humor?
He should terminate this star-crossed experiment now, he thought. Star-crossed was an appropriate turn of phrase, he realized without irony. A term usually applied to unlucky lovers, it seemed somehow to apply. The intelligent and proper course of action would be to abort this experiment and vacate the building immediately.
Still he hesitated. He was already here. Less than five feet from him sat the most intriguing scientific subject in the history of the human race. Surely she was already wondering at his behavior; the tall, dark-haired scientist who sat on her bed. Stankowski stood as his excitement mounted. This was an opportunity he could not afford to pass on.
A small recess in his mind recognized the rationalization for what it was, but with sudden resolve he ignored it. Reaching into his lab coat, Stankowski extracted a pair of examination gloves and methodically pulled them over his hands. He would finish this. It was the most prudent thing to do. He needed the tissue samples. He would sacrifice himself for science. His mouth went dry as he vaguely recognized the absurdity of his emotional state.
Working his way around the bed, he quickly located the tray that held tools necessary to get a blood sample. He felt a qualm at injecting a needle into Ms Hernandez blindly, but pushed it aside. He could not, under any circumstances, remove his blindfold. He still had enough caution remaining to heed Manning’s last admonition.
Confirming that everything he needed was present, Stankowski located the rubber tourniquet and reached forward slowly to locate Ms. Hernandez’s arm. This was the critical moment, Stankowski knew. If he were going to be further infected by the Love Spell, it would be now, when contact was made.
His gloved fingers found flesh. Ms. Hernandez had placed her hand in his, assisting him. She was trembling slightly, Stankowski realized. Her slight fingers, dwarfed in his much-larger hand, were limp and trembling. A lump formed in his throat in sympathetic reaction to her fear. His newly found resolve nearly abandoned him then. The blood, though, was more important. He had to get that wonderful blood. The secrets held within were his to discover. With an unconscious sigh of relief, Stankowski decided that he had not been further infected.
His voice echoing hollowly in his ears as he wrapped the tourniquet around her arm, Stankowski calmly asked Maria for her help. He needed her to locate her vein and position the needle for him. Without her assistance, it would be incredibly difficult to get a blood sample without unduly bruising her. Abhorrent thought, that.
With a slight tap on his forearm, Maria indicated that she had found the vein. Stankowski was startled to discover that he had butterflies in his stomach as he reached for the needle on the tray.
A wave of nausea crested with an unexpected discovery; he did not want to do this. He rebelled at the notion of puncturing Maria’s flesh. The price of the blood; it was too high. There had to be a different method he could utilize to study her. Passive observation instead of invasive needles? Civilized discussion rather than barbaric confinement.
Confinement. The word furiously ran around his mind as he saw the awful truth. Maria was like a rare and exotic bird – a beautiful bird in a cage. She wasn’t a specimen but a sentient being. She deserved her freedom. It was up to him to break her free from the cage of confinement.
Stankowski was horrified to have these thoughts. Despair gripped him and he knew that he had indeed been exposed yet again to the Love Spell – a direct dose from Maria herself. These thoughts were not consistent with his standard internal dialogue. Even through the protective layer of the gloves she had smitten him. He had no defense. He was her plaything.
He groaned inwardly as he put forth a Herculean effort to keep his hold on the needle. Every impulse inside him screamed that to take the blood was wrong. He should not, could not, hurt Maria. Even the temporary pain of the needle was too much to inflict on this divine creature. What type of stygian demon was he to even consider taking her blood for study? Science demanded it, but his heart rebelled.
His hands were beginning to shake, the only sign of the internal battle waging in Stankowski’s mind, as he placed the needle against Maria’s arm. If he was going to do this, he needed to do it now. His resolve was wavering. Do it now.
Do it now. Do it now. Reciting it in his mind like a mantra to drive all other thoughts out, Stankowski slipped the needle into the artery, crying out as the needle penetrated the epidermis. Do it now. Do it now.
A sudden rush of air assaulted his neck, breaking Stankowski’s concentration. Someone had flung open the door and entered the room. He felt rather than heard footsteps crossing the floor quickly towards him just before he was knocked roughly to the floor. His head struck something as he fell. The windowsill, he realized dimly.
Dazed, Stankowski struggled the sit up. He felt wetness on his face and reached up to remove his blindfold. His blindfold came free and fell to the floor as blood flowed from an open gash in his forehead. He tried to stand and felt annoyance at his weakness. He was conscious of activity going on around him, but could afford no time to understand it. It took all of his concentration just to stand.
An angry face appeared in his vision, startling him. It was Manning; his hair was falling into his wild eyes as he gnashed his teeth together. There were tears running down his cheeks as he screamed incoherently into Stankowski’s face.
Slowly, Stankowski began to make sense of what Manning was saying. A fog surrounded his brain and comprehension was difficult. Blinking blood from his eyes, he steadied himself by grabbing Manning’s shoulder.
Manning shook him away, staring at Stankowski in horror. For the first time since he stood, Stankowski wondered why Manning was crying. What was going on? He started to speak and realized he was still wearing the earplugs and nose plugs. The headphones had fallen off sometime earlier. He removed the offending objects and tried again.
“Manning,” he was surprised at how weak his own voice was, “what…”
“Why Stankowski?” Manning asked plaintively as he cried, “Why did you do it?”
Stankowski looked at Manning in confusion, who shifted his body so Stankowski could see behind him. Peering over Manning’s shoulder, Stankowski let out an inarticulate cry of grief.
Lying on the floor, limbs splayed at obscene angles, was a beautiful, young, Hispanic girl. Dead. Maria Hernandez. Dangling from her left arm was not a needle to draw blood, but an empty syringe. Stankowski had injected her artery with air. He had murdered her.
A shaking began in his stomach and spread outward. He had murdered the only perfect creature on the planet. He, Doctor Alvin Stankowski, had destroyed an angel. Memory came back to him as he felt his control of his extremities falter. He fell to the floor, weeping uncontrollably as he recalled exactly what he had done.
There were a number of needles on the tray, only one of which was the one to draw blood. He remembered feeling that needle and discarding it in favor of the syringe. He remembered pulling the plunger back, filling the chamber with air, just before he pierced Maria’s flesh.
He had meant to kill her. His intent the entire time had been to kill her. He knew now why he did it, but it did nothing to lessen the grief he was feeling. He was still firmly under control of the Love Spell.
As he had pulled on his gloves at the bedside, he understood that Maria was a freak of nature. She was an abnormality that threatened not only the two scientists, but also the entire city. The whole world. It had been a flash of insight brought on in part by the unconventional text in Manning’s office – “Mythical and Fabulous Creatures” – and in part by his sudden and abrupt emotional changes towards Maria. There was no way he should have been able to go from cool objectivity to uneasy ambivalence to abject adoration of Maria in the space of a single afternoon. It was completely inconsistent with the man he was.
With growing awe, he surmised that monsters in human form had peppered human history since the dawn of time. They popped up so rarely and were so fantastic that their existence was frequently denied and they were relegated to the realm of mythology. They were real, though – all too real. In a world of billions, a monster like Maria could wreak havoc on a scale undreamed of in ancient times.
Maria had, in the space of two weeks, gone from casting a mere love spell to almost killing a person with her gaze. Her power would only grow, Stankowski had realized. It was not at all absurd to conjecture that she might reach a point where she could, through force of will alone, make every living being in the city her willing slaves. Or kill them outright if she so desired.
He had to do it. If a man such as himself, strong and dispassionate, could fall so completely under her spell without ever actually seeing her, the danger she posed was indeed all too real. He loved her with all his heart, but he had to do it.
He realized he had said it out loud. His enlightened reasoning and rationale fell apart as he looked again at the only woman he had ever truly loved.
Looking up at Manning with haunted eyes, he repeated himself, “I had to do it, Manning. You see that, don’t you? I had to do it.”
“I tried to stop you,” Manning whispered, visibly trembling as he glanced down at the dead body. “I saw you on camera choose the syringe, but I never imagined you had murder in your heart. When I realized what you intended, I came as fast as I could.”
He looked at Stankowski with steely eyes, “I was going to kill you. I wanted to. I still do.”
Stankowski nodded bleakly, “This is what she reduced us to, Manning. Murder and hatred. You know what she was, even if you cannot admit it. She is in that book of yours. I had to do it.”
“Who are you to do this thing?” Manning tugged his hair with impotent rage, “Damn you, man! I loved her. Who are you to make this choice?”
Stankowski stared at Manning as the tears began anew. With a broken voice, he answered.
I wrioe this in the early 1990s based on the style of one of my favorite authors - Isaac Asimov. I was quite proud of this story when I wrote it and still enjoy it today, even if it is a little heavy-handed for my tastes nowadays.