• Franetta McMillian

"The Girl Who Spoke in Pictures"


Dr. Arnette Williams

Liberty City

Alicia Nightgrove, the girl who spoke in pictures, had two fathers: David Grove and Lillian Dean. David Grove, the new Director of Operations at the Liberty City Ruby Biotech Headquarters, was in his early sixties and was almost unnaturally good-looking. He didn't look falsely young for his age—he had just the right amount of gray in his closely cropped hair—but everything about him was almost too perfect. He had the body of a linebacker with the face of a model.

His partner, Lillian Dean, looked to be in his early 40's, tall and thin, with a wild mop of honey blond hair, a narrow face, and eyes that ranged from blue to green depending on the light and what contacts he chose to wear that day. He claimed to be a mere senior research scientist, but I sensed he could be far more. Despite his shy, befuddled exterior, there was something regal about him. When he entered a room, you felt it.

Sometimes when I was trying to make my life far more mysterious and exciting than it actually was, I fantasized the unassuming Lillian Dean was actually Ruby Biotech's reclusive founder, Lillian Ruby, but I knew he was far too young. Most likely his parents named him Lillian hoping the name would magically grant him wealth and power along with the grace and intelligence to handle them. Plenty of parents did that back when the real Lillian Ruby was still shuttling around the world dispensing folksy words of wisdom in his Bayou accent.

The couple had relocated to Liberty City from Crescent Region where they had lived for quite some time. David had a chance for a promotion; the Crescent was roiling with violence, and they longed to give their newly-adopted daughter a fresh start.

They interviewed me at their house in Liberty City Dome's swank East Quadrant. They'd barely been in region a week and hadn't even had time to unpack. Their expansive living room was cluttered with unopened boxes.

David Grove explained the situation. Alicia had been orphaned by the recent spate of political violence in the Crescent. Her aunt, the only mother she knew—her biological mother died not too long after Alicia was born—had been brutally murdered in front of her eyes and Alicia hadn't uttered a word since. She communicated through a series of gestures and by drawing pictures. "You come highly recommended, Dr. Williams," said Dr. Grove. "We'd like you to try to give Alicia back her voice."

"In your e-mail you mentioned something about a recent illness," I said.

"An environmental leukemia," Dr. Dean chimed in with a slight Southern accent. (I noticed Dr. Grove didn't have one.) "Those are quite common in the Crescent."

"Do you think that might have a bearing on some of Alicia's difficulties?" I asked.

"No," insisted Dr. Grove a little too forcefully. "Before the murder she was a normal girl."

So, the illness was a sensitive subject. "You say she uses pictures to communicate?"

Dr. Dean responded by producing a sketchbook and a damn nice one, too. Leather binding, heavy cotton paper. I flipped through the pages and was astounded. The drawings were photo perfect, done with clinical precision. "How old did you say Alicia was again?"

"Seven," responded Drs. Grove and Dean in unison.

"These are..." I fumbled for the right word. I didn't want to call the drawings brilliant. Because they weren't. They were marvels of technique, but they weren't art. They were completely devoid of emotion. They looked as if an alien had come down to earth and drawn pictures of what they had seen. I saw no pictures of people. Just plants, insects, and the decaying buildings of the Crescent. "This is how she speaks to you?"

"Yes," replied Dr. Dean, somewhat taken aback by my question. "It's sort of like jazz. The sense is in the heart, in the play of light and dark, never in the straight line."

There was an uncomfortable silence. I had no idea how to process what he'd said. Up until that point, the couple had been very scientific and rational when speaking about their daughter. Then, without warning, Dean went all mystical on me.

The next thing he said was even stranger. "Dr. Williams, do you have any psychic abilities?"

I swear: that was the first and only time anyone had ever asked that in an interview. Then again, the Crescent was known as the Land of Restless Ghosts. Maybe Dr. Dean and Alicia had seen a few.

Another strained silence. I feared I wasn't going to get the job and despite the enormity of the task the two men set before me, I really wanted to tackle the challenge. I took a few deep breaths and looked directly into Dr. Dean's eyes. He was dead serious and desperate; he really wanted to know. Anything that would help his little girl. So, I told him the truth. "Yes, I do. I have the Sight."

He was visibly relieved; he even smiled slightly. "Good. I think that would prove helpful."

After that, Dr. Grove went to fetch Alicia from her room. She came out wearing a plain lavender dress and clutching a small sketchbook against her chest, similar to the one her fathers had just shown me, almost like she was using it as a shield. She was tiny for her age, about the size of a four year old and milky pale. Her short curly blond hair was almost white. But the strangest thing about her were her eyes. They were blue, but not like human eyes are usually blue. They were almost electric blue, like the sky used to be on a crisp, cloudless fall day. And they were infinite—bottomless—like you could stare into them forever and still not have one clue about the workings of this girl's soul. Suddenly Lillian Dean's inquiry about psychic abilities wasn't so odd after all.

"Alicia," said Dr. Grove, "this is Dr. Arnette Williams."

For a moment we just stared at each other. Then, Alicia handed Dr. Grove the sketchbook—her movements were dreamlike, hypnotic—and walked up to me to take a closer look. If she had been like any other child, I would have given her a warm hug, but with Alicia I was wary about even extending my hand. Finally, she offered hers and I took it in my own. I felt like I was holding hands with a mythical creature—an elf, a fairy, a wood nymph—something distinctly ethereal and not quite human.

"Hello Alicia," I said.

She said nothing; she just eyed me with her thousand mile stare. Then, she slowly took her hand from mine and went to sit by Dr. Dean. Out of the three adults in the room, she seemed to like him the best. She was fascinated with his blond curls; she couldn't keep her tiny hands away from them.

I took Alicia on as a patient and several things became obvious once I began seriously working with her. One: the girl was deeply disturbed. Two: Lillian Dean understood his daughter better than anyone else. He was right about the jazz thing; he was right about everything concerning Alicia no matter how far-fetched it seemed at first. The adoption might have initially been Dr. Grove's idea, but he didn't understand squat about his daughter. And it also became apparent as I watched Alicia and Dr. Grove interact that Alicia didn't particularly like him and was maybe a bit scared of him.

Which is why it never made sense to me that it was mostly David Grove who showed up to conferences—alone. Lillian Dean was almost always conspicuously absent. But maybe this is how David asserted his dominance; he struck me as someone bent on maintaining his position as the alpha male.

So, it was highly unusual for Dr. Dean to show up in my office without his other half as he did that afternoon looking like he'd literally run in from work. He was still dressed in a company haz suit and shivering like he was cold.

"Did you have to work Outside today, Dr. Dean?" I asked. Outside temperatures had been hovering at the zero mark for days with wind chills near 15 below.

"Yes," he replied while hurriedly removing his helmet and gloves. "I can't get used to all this cold weather. Crescent weather is tropical. Your Dome is even colder than ours. I only do winter occasionally."

"Well, I'm sure you can adjust the temperature of your suit," I suggested. "And you can set that fabulous house you live in to any temperature you want."

"True, true," he agreed, "but I can't set the temperature in the house too high because some of Alicia's favorite plants will wilt. And the plants keep her happy." He rubbed his hands together. "Don't worry. I'll build up weather tolerance soon enough." Then, he was all business. "What do you have for me today, Dr. Williams? Your e-mail sounded promising."

"Where is Dr. Grove?" I asked.

"Unfortunately, he is away at a conference."

"It's too bad he can't be here with you to share the news."

Dr. Dean looked cautiously hopeful. "So, you have good news then?"

Actually I did have mostly good news. But since Dr. Grove was elsewhere, I also decided to address one pressing concern. I chose to start with the good news; that's what Dean and his partner were paying a boatload of credits to hear. "Alicia drew two portraits this past week..."

"Really?" Dr. Dean moved to the edge of his seat—and rightly so—because up until then, the only person Alicia had ever drawn had been him. She hadn't even drawn Dr. Grove. "May I see them?" he asked.

I handed him Alicia's sketchbook with the relevant pages bookmarked. Dr. Dean examined each drawing in turn. The first drawing seemed to be from a dream. It showed a nude woman floating in space either asleep or dead surrounded by several glowing jellyfish like creatures. The woman was pale like Alicia and even with her eyes closed, you could see she was uncommonly beautiful. She had a number of elaborate tattoos: an angry black serpent coiled around one leg and several alchemical symbols on both arms. I could tell Dr. Dean recognized her immediately and had some strongly conflicting feelings about her.

"Who is she?" I asked.

"Alicia's mother," said Dr. Dean dreamily, tears welling up in his eyes.

"Her biological mother or the aunt who raised her?"

"Her biological mother."

"Alicia remembers her?"

"Perhaps..." He set the book down on his lap so he could wipe his eyes.

"May I ask why you are crying?"

"I haven't seen Allison in a really long time."

"She died in childbirth, didn't she?"

"Not in childbirth per se, but not too long after—" He stopped short as if he'd suddenly realized he'd revealed too much. He picked up the sketchbook from his lap and went on to the next drawing. It was also of a woman, as tough and mannish as the other woman was feminine, with honey brown skin, a square jaw, and dark brown eyes which seemed oddly uneven. There were two scars under one eye shaped like teardrops. I could tell Dr. Dean had some strong emotions wrapped up in her, too.

"Who is she?" I asked.

"The woman who saved Alicia's life."

"The one who found her clinging to her aunt's body?"

"Yes," he quickly replied. Then: something in him shut down completely. It was as if a stone wall came crashing down between us. The resulting silence was thick and prickly, but I let him have his space.

It was several minutes before I spoke again. "Dr. Dean, do you know what's so special about these drawings?" I paused, but he still had his eyes glued to the page. "These are the first two people Alicia's drawn besides you. And there's something else, too. Despite their air of strangeness, there's a tenderness in these drawings which is strongly lacking in her other work. Usually Alicia's subjects are exquisitely rendered, but the drawings feel cold. But it's obvious to me that Alicia loves these two women, just as it is apparent from her work that she loves you."

Only then did Dr. Dean look at me. He smiled slightly. He was pleased Alicia's feelings for him had been confirmed by someone else.

"Dr. Dean," I continued, "I know there's no way we can bring Alicia's mother back to life, but the other woman...is she somewhere close by? Even if she's back in the Crescent, is there any way we can arrange a video conference? It might help get your daughter closer to whole."

He shut down again; that wisp of a smile vanished.

"Please...at least tell me who she is."

I waited. It took a few minutes, but his expression finally softened. "Please don't tell David I told you," he whispered.

I nodded a promise I wasn't quite sure I could keep.

"Morian Watts."

At first I could only stare at him stupidly. Dr. Dean was always saying things that knocked me off balance. Morian Watts? It couldn't be. Everyone in the shattered states knew the name if not the face. Morian Watts was the ghost charmer on the scene of the Etta Flowers assassination. Somehow she had managed to open a house in lockdown mode without knowing the key code, find her way to a panic room in the master suite and save the heir to the Flowers Energy fortune. And all of this while wearing a compromised haz suit and the air in the house saturated with weapons-grade poison gas. Up until then most people thought of ghost charmers as a bad joke. Sure, a few of them might have had genuine gifts, but the majority were believed to be charlatans, preying on people with credits to burn. But Watts made even the staunchest skeptics believe. "Morian Watts? The ghost charmer?" I asked, just to be sure I heard correctly.

"Yes," confirmed Dr. Dean lowering his eyes.

My brain went through a flurry of if...then calculations. "So, that means Alicia is the sole surviving heir to the Flowers Energy fortune?"

"Yes. When Alicia reaches the age of majority, the company will be hers."

"So her aunt was Etta Flowers?"

Dr. Dean nodded. "And her birth mother was Allison Flowers, who towards the end of her life was better known as Night Flower, the graffiti artist."

Well that explained a lot. Like why the Drs. Dean and Grove didn't so much as flinch when I doubled my usual fees to work with their daughter. It explained Dr. Grove's haughty air and why I had to sign a special confidentiality agreement. I was dealing with some high class refugees. "Why didn't you tell me this at the beginning?"

"Ms. Arnette," asked Dr. Dean wearily, "if we had told you the whole truth, would you have taken our case?"

I thought on that for a while. "No, Mr. Lillian, I guess I wouldn't have."

"Well," he said, handing me back Alicia's sketchbook, "there you go." That was that. As far as he was concerned, the discussion was over. He felt no need to offer any more explanation.

I still had more good news to give him, but decided to address that one thing that had been nagging me ever since Alicia had come under my wing. It wasn't a pleasant subject to broach, but I decided to do it anyway, mostly because I was angry at him for lying to me.

"Dr. Dean," I began gingerly, "there's something that's been bothering me..."

"And that is?"

"It's the way Alicia interacts with your partner Dr. Grove."

He raised an eyebrow. "And that is?"

"She doesn't seem as close to him as she does to you. And sometimes..."

"Yes?" he prompted.

"She seems angry with or frightened of him. Alicia has never drawn him, even when I suggest it."

"So, what are you saying, Dr. Williams?"

I knew I had to tread carefully. Dr. Dean's voice still sounded calm, but I could sense his growing anger. "Is everything okay between Alicia and Dr. Grove?"

"They're fine," he stated flatly. There was another prickly silence, but just when I thought he was going to shut down again, his expression softened. "I'm sorry, Doctor. I know you are just doing your job. And I must say that you're doing it well. It's true that Alicia has bonded more with me than with David. But that's because David's almost always working. He's worked all his life for his position and he aims to keep it. Plus, we didn't leave home under the best of circumstances."

"Do you want to talk about those circumstances, about why you left?"

"There were credible threats on David's life, as there were on all those perceived to be barons. We left like thieves in the night. I was born in the Crescent and had lived there all my life. I hardly ever traveled out of region. David had been in the Crescent for the better part of 20 years. The past few months have been hard on all of us."

He paused. I waited for him to tell me more, but that was all I was going to get for now.

"Is that all the news you have for me today, Dr. Williams? I promised Alicia I would take her to the new exhibit at the science museum this afternoon."

"No," I replied, "there's something else...something wonderful actually…" That's when I told him about the hologram. I wanted to see what would happen if I added an additional dimension to Alicia's art. She resisted the technology at first; she liked the concrete quality of pen, ink and paper. But then again, Alicia also resisted learning simple phrases in sign language when we first met and we cleared that hurdle.

At first Alicia's holograms were disappointingly rudimentary, but suddenly they blossomed. This particular hologram was of the same jellyfish like creatures that floated through Alicia's drawing of her birth mother. It was unusual for Alicia to revisit a symbol in her drawings. But this symbol was especially important because she'd made a point of explaining it in her own queer way.

"Dr. Dean," I explained, "Alicia actually pulled me away from my desk so I would be certain to get a good look at it. She grabbed me by the hand (and as I'm sure you've noticed, she hardly touches anyone but you) and pulled me closer to it. That is mine, she signed. Yes, I acknowledged, it certainly is yours. It's very good. No, she signed back, that is mine! Yes, Alicia, I said, I understood you. And that's when I heard Alicia speak for the very first time. One word, very faint. She pointed at the hologram and said, Me."

At first he looked stunned. And then: he wept. So, all those credits he and his partner were paying me weren't going down a black hole. Still, it had been just over three months and it was one tiny word. When he finally collected himself, he asked: "Could you show me the hologram please?"

I dimmed the lights. "Show Nightgrove hologram one." And one of the alien jellyfish floated between us. Actually, it was rounder than a jellyfish, with tentacles all around. The tentacles were shorter at the top and long enough to graze the floor on the bottom. Its color changed with a subtle rhythm and ranged from the electric blue of Alicia's eyes, to turquoise, to indigo. The central sphere seemed to expand and contract, like it was breathing, and if you stared at it long enough, it seemed to breathe with you. Inside the sphere were lights like a rainbow of fireflies.

Dr. Dean rose from his chair to get a closer look. The expression on his face was a mix of concentration and wonder.

"Do you know what this is?" I asked. "Why it might be so important to Alicia?"

He didn't answer right away. He poked at the sphere and tugged at a few tentacles. The lights inside the sphere danced in response. Funny. I'd never thought to touch it. Alicia had designed an interactive hologram. Holy crap! People went to school for years to design stuff like that. And Alicia was how old?

"What is this?" I asked again.

"It appears to be a virus," replied Dr. Dean with a calmness that was unsettling. "Although I can't say it's one I've seen before."

"A virus?"

"Yes," he said, still curiously unperturbed. "It's probably something someone cobbled together from several things. Like this bit up top..." He ran his hands over the shorter tentacles. "...reminds me of HIV."

"Dr. Dean, why would your daughter program a hologram of a virus? How would she even know about such a thing?"

"David has tons of pictures in his study as do I."

I frowned. He was lying to me again, although I couldn't guess what truth he was trying to hide.

"I know it sounds strange," conceded Dr. Dean, "but I was fascinated with viruses and bacteria myself when I was a kid. So, simple and yet...so elegant. And they're not all bad. Some are absolutely necessary for our survival.

Well, that made me feel a little better, still... "But your daughter seems to identify with this thing. That doesn't disturb you? I don't care if it's malevolent or not. It's not human."

"Alicia's birth mother may have died of an unknown environmental illness. Perhaps this is what killed her. Maybe Alicia remembers this from the womb."

I folded my arms. Now, he was just talking nonsense.

"Arnette, you might recall when I inquired about your psychic abilities?"

"Yes, Lillian, I do."

"My daughter is extremely sensitive. She remembers things that other children cannot. She could be remembering her birth mother's illness."

"I've never heard of such."

"Is your world limited only to that with which you are familiar?" He smiled slightly. "Don't you like a mystery?"

I didn't know what to say.

"This is a mystery, Dr. Williams, one which you and I will solve together. Thank you for getting us this far. I am truly grateful."

Somebody's phone buzzed. I wasn't sure if it was mine or his, but our time together was almost over.

"Will you e-mail me copies of the drawings and the hologram to my black box?" asked Dr. Dean.

"Certainly," I replied, "but the hologram's rather large."

"Don't worry. My box can handle it."

That's when my assistant brought Alicia from the playroom. The lights in the main office were still dim and Alicia's hologram was still hovering near the center of the room. As soon as Alicia saw her Daddy Lillian she ran straight through her art into his arms. The jellyfish flashed as bright as lightning and I involuntarily shut my eyes. By the time I reopened them, mere seconds later, Alicia and Dr. Dean were at the door ready to leave. Thanks again, Arnette, Dr. Dean thought to me, his sweet Southern accent singing in my head.

So, he had the Sight and he was strong enough to send thoughts across the room without touch. Maybe that's where his regal air came from.

"Goodbye, Dr. Dean," I said aloud.

Later that evening I wrote my case notes trying to make sense of the events of that afternoon. Alicia was the lone heir to a great fortune. She was also the survivor of an unspeakable tragedy. She had great artistic talent, but rarely drew people. Somehow while I wasn't looking she managed to program a complex interactive hologram of a virus that she strongly identified with. That is me, she had tried to sign, and when I didn't understand, she had spoken her first word in months. Dr. Dean seemed strangely nonplussed by this development when I told him about it. Not that Alicia spoke—that moved him to tears—but the fact she identified with a virus. It was merely another mystery for him to solve. Had he been expecting something like this to happen? Finally: there was the matter of Alicia's last name. Nightgrove. Dr. Dean had revealed Night Flower, the graffiti artist, was Alicia's birth mother, so it followed David Grove was her biological father. No, she really wasn't adopted at all. What a mess!

It was too late for me to back out of my agreement with the Drs. Grove and Dean. I prayed I wasn't in over my head.


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