There began to play otherworldly-sounding music that will abruptly start, and after stopping—a sharp click of the needle scratching the record will reverse the song, happening again and again. The surroundings are nothing but undulating purple waves and before Juniper is a disembodied set of eyes without a face. The irises are darker than the color black. Underneath the music is the sound of an egg cracking. Juniper looks down at her toes, laid bare, standing atop a checkerboard-tiled floor. Her right foot is on a white tile and the left is standing on black. As the cracking noise intensifies, the floor starts to fragment. Juniper falls through the bottom—awakening abruptly in her bed.

Her cat, Luca, is staring down at her. The pink cushions of his paw are dabbing at her forehead… it's almost as though he is attempting to find a hidden button concealed between her eyes. Juniper has raised Luca for the past five years, they met after she moved into her first apartment. In fact, he was already living there when she moved in. During the apparent mix-up, she had tried to find his owners but the landlord informed her that the previous tenants were allergic to cats and had owned a spritely Beagle instead—so, his origins were, for the most part, shrouded in mystery.

Not only that but Luca is unlike any breed of cat she has ever seen. His entire right side is solid white and the left half is entirely black, not only that but his right eye is a cerulean blue, while the other is beet red. He has a black dot, like a mole, beneath his blue eye and a white dot above his red eye. There are times where his mewling even sounds human.

Despite this, Juniper smothers Luca in affection. Her parents have been absent from her life since a young age but despite their worldly disappearance, their bodies have never been found, leaving a lack of closure for Juniper—amidst the disarray. This resulted in Juniper living with her grandmother until she was ten. Her grandmother passed away from pancreatic cancer and for many years, she lived with an abusive foster family. She had been informed, at age seventeen, that she had been specially selected to work for a covert government operation and would be provided with a pension. The only requirement was that she agree to work seven days a week in an intensive combat training program.

Juniper has recently turned twenty-one and still hasn't a clue what the training is for. She still sees it as a great opportunity to become independent and with how hostile the abuse situation with the foster family had become, she could have easily ended up on the streets. Because Juniper is rarely able to hang out with her friends from high school, Luca accompanies her to training and therapy appointments… she even smuggles him in her backpack when she goes to the grocery store.

After remembering the surrealistic dream, Juniper's eyes wearily scan her studio apartment... not much there... it's woefully empty. Other than: her mattress on the floor, a stack of library books, and a pile of her clothes... Juniper has never put aside time to buy a hamper and dirty dishes clog the sink. She glances at her wristwatch and topples out of bed—boiled egg, check! Overdue books, check! Wallet, check! House key, check! Luca! Luca?

...where did he wander off to?

"Luca!" Juniper is calling out, her calls are followed by sugary pet names and whistling. Finally, there is a rustling in her backpack and out pops a pair of cat ears. Juniper questions her reality once again and then comes to the brisk conclusion that Luca must have some sort of teleportation machine stowed away somewhere!

Yes, Juniper thinks to herself drowsily, because that's a perfectly logical conclusion to come to.

"Geez, man," Juniper scowls, "you really worried me!" She pauses, almost expecting her animate cat friend to reply back. Juniper ties her cadmium-colored hair in a high, side ponytail; equipped with her usual attire—a sports jacket with a pair of spats underneath. Out of the ten different outfits she owns, they're all the same and when they get sweaty… she has lost countless hours having to rewash old clothes.

Before leaving, she taps the front of her of her shoes on the concrete outside and gets a running start from her bike. Juniper kicks the break back and escalates off a hill. The scenery looks like a pastel painting in the shimmering sunshine. She is so taken aback from the day's beauty that she nearly forgets to break at the foot of the hill––where the 6AM train trundles along, per usual, obscuring the intersection and thus, the pathway to her appointment with Dr. Ellington.

After the safety gates open, she spots her close friends: Ashton and Elizabeth. They wave her down but are only a blur in her periphery, as she rides past them. Ashton Williams is a tenacious blonde, who ran away from her wealthy family to attend college out of town. Additionally, Ashton is an enigmatic spitfire but is often too idealistic for her own good. Elizabeth Gardner, on the other hand, is more subdued with her self-expression but works hard enough that it's clear to see her drive from afar. Having been raised in a mixed-race family, her father being Caucasian, while, her mother is an immigrant from India; Elizabeth is extremely family-oriented and prideful—often too stubborn to be open about any of the negative feelings that may weigh her down.

Ashton is a petite girl with long hair and split bangs. She is relatively busty and normally wears a V-neck blouse with skinny jeans, while always complaining that creepy guys stick to her like glue. Ashton has high cheekbones and a distinctive face, her features denoting a possible connection to a royal family. On the other hand, Elizabeth's attire is much more masculine: an ascot cap, blanched turtleneck sweater, a gray blazer, and a copper pair of plaid trousers.

Elizabeth edifies fashion from the seventies and even styles her short shag of hair with gelled sideburns. During the summer, Ashton is more likely to be seen with her hair woven in a loose chignon. Both of them are as different as the sun and the moon, quarreling constantly—mostly over politics. Ashton is a political lobbyist, so her conservative beliefs incite arguments between her and Elizabeth on a regular basis.

The two girls clash so much that Juniper often wonders if SHE may be the only reason they're still friends. Thinking about the whole debacle forces an exasperated sigh from Juniper's lips but her mouth, now knotted in a squiggly line, straightens up resiliently. The last five years of her life have been a blessing. There are still some emotional issues she's grappling with but, more than anything, she is overwhelmingly grateful to have the kind of life that many destitute twenty-one-year-olds would die for.

Her bicycle whirls into a cul de sac, after waiting at an intersection, Juniper has coined it The Crossroads: a reference to the Mississippi crossroads where the famous blues singer, Robert Johnson, supposedly met the Devil. Before her is the local library building fenced off by lattices of iron structures, and rows upon rows of trees. Juniper's bike brakes by the corner of the building. There is a tiny, abandoned edifice adjoined to the library's building. In the front of it is a steel fortification, buried in shrubs. Juniper carefully unlatches the hidden door, shrouded in nothing but green, and the hinges hesitantly squeal open. She walks her bike in and, always unsure of where to lock it up, decides to bury it under a mound of leaves.

There is no receptionist in the building, only a vacant office. Juniper tries to open the wooden door as quietly as possible because Dr. Ellington has always instructed her to let herself in, due to the fact that he prefers not to treat his patients like guests, but, instead, attempts to create a safe environment, like a second home. Or, to some, the only place they can call home. Before her is an eclectic office that is as large as a two-car garage, donned with an entire wall of African masks––the majority originating from Beti-Pahuin and a few of a Balinese topeng variety. Every wall is painted a different color. The wall with the masks is maroon, the front-facing area with his desk is painted with gold linseed oil paint, the patient area is an olive green, and the entrance area is a shade of navy blue.

There are countless potted saplings within the enclosed area, as if the overgrown greenery is an idiomatic aesthetic for him to personally enjoy. The door is open and Dr. Ellington quietly continues to read the book that is spread across his lap. It's normal for a professional to stand up and greet their clientele. Ellington has previously explained to her that he finds it intrusive to accost visitors with empty greetings and would rather wait until the newcomer is comfortable before speaking to them.

Juniper considers it admirable that Ellington has often defied conventions to better suit the needs of others. Juniper has been seeing him for three years, before then, it had taken quite a bit of time to recognize that she needed emotional guidance from someone. At first, she had convinced herself that she could authentically live her life as a normal girl, without any assistance, but certain thoughts would make her mind race and there were nights where she couldn't get intrusive memories to leave, so she decided to see someone. She justified it as being a way to become more efficient at her job, the one opportunity that she couldn't afford to lose to lost sleep. Underneath the façade, Juniper has truly yearned for a parental figure; being parentless had left a hole in her heart.

George Ellington is an older gentleman who is married, with a twenty-seven-year-old daughter that lives close to him and works from home as a transcriptionist. At age fifty-seven, he is immaculate and well-kept—he has full, wispy hair that is kept back—and a well-groomed beard and mustache that is peppered with light brown specks. He wears the standard light blue button-down shirt, an unwrinkled blazer, and will refuse to wear a tie, unless formality demands it of him. If asked, he will occasionally compare them to nooses.

When Juniper sits down and greets him with a blithe "good morning," his stock-still face comes to life. Ellington flashes a small smile and cups the ankle of his crossed leg.

"Hello! How the hell have you been?"

"Oh, y'know… just working and spoiling the snot out of Luca."

"Well, it's delightful that that much hasn't changed."

"Verily."

"That reminds me! There is a book I wanted to give you!"

"Oh no! Please don't––I can buy it myself."

"I want to. I have too many damned books anyway!"

"Please don't, I don't pay you nearly enough for that!"

"I enjoy your company regardless of the pay, so think of this as a gift."

Juniper puffs out her cheeks, pouting as loudly as her objections. If this had been a singular incident, it would have been fine… but every other time she comes in, Dr. Ellington gives away one of his belongings as a present. Like sentimentality means absolutely nothing to him. The office has three large bookshelves on the olive wall, Ellington sifts through the books until his eyes stop on one wedged in the corner of the center shelf.

"Aha!"

He hands her a book titled It is the Responsibility of Intellectuals to Speak the Truth and to Expose Lies. It is written by an author named Noam Chomsky.

"While the title speaks volumes of truth, I don't see why it would be applicable to me… all I do is hit and kick things…"

There is a beat and static silence resounds. Juniper averts her eyes shyly. Ellington continues to watch her with a piercing gaze.

"Juniper, how has the week been treating you?"

Ellington folds his arms into his stomach—almost as though he is the one in the patient's seat. He had informed Juniper, years prior, that he has an eidetic memory, and thus, doesn't need to take notes.

"Well, y'know, besides a catastrophic dream last night. I have been having memories of that terrible place come back."

"Were you able to remember more this time?"

"Mm, not exactly, it's more like it reappears in more vivid detail."

"Can you explain?"

"Yeah… so, I told you about what those people would call 'night church.' I couldn't have been any older than six or seven."

"And what happened at 'night church' that frightened you?"

Juniper's eyes become hazy, as though she has gone into a trance. Her consciousness slowly separates from her body… dissociating… dissociating… gone.

"Everyone was wearing white makeup. Their whole faces were cloaked in it. They look like ghouls. Some of them had black paint around their eyes. I suppose it was to emulate the appearance of a skull? I'm not really sure."

"Was it in an actual church? Can you recall where they took you?"

"It's hazy, but it did seem to be an actual church. It was in a mountainous, rural area—I can't recall exactly where because it seemed as though they packed us into a car after we had fallen asleep."

"Us?"

"Yes, there were many other children there. I even remember where all of us were before we fell asleep. We had been taken out to this nice place in the countryside. There was an ornamental gate and beyond it, was a mansion. The mansion itself was by the mountains. It had rolling hills and acres of land: stretching further than the eye could see."

"What led you to such a decadent place?"

"It's difficult to say, my mother and father had recently gotten a divorce, and I can't remember if either of them took me there or if it was a person outside of the family. The only person that I can remember clearly is Melissa."

"Melissa… can you describe her?"

"Yes, she was a teenage girl. I would guess that she was between the ages of fourteen and sixteen."

"Was? What was her role in all of this?"

"I say was… because I don't think she's around anymore. I was told that she was my babysitter. She was kind and pretty. She had a wavy, brunette hair-do and glistening blue eyes. Before that dreadful evening, she played with me all day. I don't remember if my younger brother was there with us. In a single day, she had given me more love and attention than I had ever received from my mother."

"Do you have fond memories of your mother?"

"I do and I don't," Juniper says while masking her sadness with an emission of laughter, "she was gone a lot of the time, and when she was around… she always cried and smoked and would starve herself until her ribcage was jutting out of her stomach. Around other people she would always smile but it felt like a mask compared to how she actually was. I mean, the husk of a person she was at home."

"Do you miss her?"

"Yes," Juniper replies and her eyes glaze over, "I do."

"Do you think she was responsible for that night?"

"I don't know. I was around extended family a lot as a child, so really, it could have been anyone."

"Moving on," Ellington softly urges, "are there any outstandingly positive childhood experiences that you had, I mean, before you went to stay with your grandmother?"

"One."

"Only one?"

"Yes."

"Do you have it in you to talk about it?"

"Certainly. There's this place in my memories. It takes place in a chateau. From what I can recall, I don't actually know anyone there and I don't even remember if I ever went there more than once. But this place was like the Biblical Garden of Eden, right? Everyone was close and happy, but they weren't forced to smile. The women exuded a beautiful aura, even when their elbows were covered in suds from washing dishes. And there was a type of euclidean feeling from the forest that surrounded it––everything measured out exactly. Practically, a perfect dimensionality to every object and living creature. The light from the windows tinged everything in a lurid shade of green. In my adulthood, I refer to it as my green place. I don't even know if it's real—it might have all been a dream; it may have even been a fantasy that I created to escape the pain of reality but I remember it vividly, as though it once existed!'

Dr. Ellington chuckles.

"Is something I said funny?"

"Not particularly. I just find it amusing that you can describe something beautiful with such verbose expressiveness, literarily speaking, and yet you deny that you're anything more than a Taekwondo expert."

Juniper's face flushes a shade of amber and she steeps herself in stolid silence for a few seconds. Questioning whether she should respond.

"You must admit that you have a good head on your shoulders, if nothing else."

"I suppose you may have a point."

"Verily."

They both burst into laughter. Ellington breaks her out of her shell every time.

"I have a question."

"Shoot!"

"Is your green place anything like this jungle of an office?"

"Nope. The place in my memories is far more ethereal than anything could possibly be in our reality. Though, I'm sure that I was initially drawn to this place because of those memories."

"Very good—it's necessary for people to find a place where they can thrive. And, with that, I believe the time in our session has gone on longer than expected. You're always welcome to call me, I don't have a computer, but we could always meet up for coffee if need be."

"Thanks for the offer. I hope your wife is recovering well from her surgery."

A wintry expression passes over him—forcibly sending shivers up and down Juniper's spine. A crooked smile cracks through the icy demeanor.

"She's doing better. I appreciate your concern."

"I apologize if I broached a sore subject."

"No, it's just weakness on my behalf. Now, do you have that Noam Chomsky book?"

"Yes! Thank you! I appreciate it more than you could ever know… I try to spend all the time away from training… learning as much as I can, sir."

Dr. Ellington extends his arm for a handshake but he had never offered a hug, or anything closer than that—it is as though he is completely glacial to physical affection. Juniper understood the feeling but thought a lot about what could have led to Dr. Ellington becoming such a peculiar person.

"You're welcome to call me George, if you like. You've been seeing me for three years, there's no need for you to always refer to me as sir or doctor anymore."

"I appreciate your offer but I have to politely decline."

"Is there a reason?"

"It's hard to put my finger on but that name just doesn't seem right. If I called you that it wouldn't seem natural to me because the name itself doesn't really suit you. I'm sorry if that comes across as rude."

Dr. Ellington's eyes become glassy, as if there is something behind Juniper's supposition.

"You're a very intuitive lady, Juniper."

"I'm glad that my feeling wasn't completely off. I gotta run—the commander's gonna have my head on a platter if I don't skedaddle!"

"Goodbye," Dr. Ellington softly mutters, while stretching a book over his lap again with legs crossed, "it's always a pleasure. See you again next week!"

As soon as Juniper jolts out of the office, Dr. Ellington unzips the duffle bag next to him and inside is a human skeleton. All of the meat has been picked off and the bones are all that are left of the remains.

"I'm so sorry, darling."


Author's Note: 真柏Project has been a passion project that I've been working on for a little over a decade. My ultimate goal is to transform the series into a visual novel, so if you like the installments I've published, please leave a review (on GoodReads or Amazon) and share the story.