Sign up for the latest news and updates from The Dark Newsletter!

Escaping Dr. Markoff

You love Dr. Markoff.

You have always loved Dr. Markoff, even before the film began.

He is unlike any man you have ever met. Have you met many other men? It is so difficult to remember. His hair is black as jet. His eyes are as deep as night. When he speaks in his low accented voice you hear red wine being poured slowly into a crystal glass.

“You are only my assistant,” he says. He is a mountain in winter. “Never forget that.”

Rewind to the beginning of the scene. He has taken you to the symphony, an exclusive concert by The Father, an acclaimed violinist. You are in the box next to The Beautiful Daughter and The Fiancé. The Beautiful Daughter and The Fiancé are so pale they blaze with light, threatening to chase away all shadows and contrast.

“Do you really intend to pursue this girl?” you ask Dr. Markoff. “Simply for a chance resemblance to a dead woman? After all I’ve done for you—the secrets I’ve kept—”

He grabs your chin. His hands are ice and fire; your blood sings towards his hand where he touches you. His eyes are dark electricity, storms brewing under the harsh cliff of his brow, ready to sweep you away, to shatter you without mercy.

“You are only my assistant,” he says. He is a mountain in winter. “Never forget that.”

Forget? Was there something to forget? There is only Dr. Markoff, and his hands, and his eyes.

You are a scientist in your own right. You attended university. You must have, surely. Yes, here they are, the memories backfilling themselves with only a slight delay: the row with your father, who you thought would understand after all he had told you of oppression; the cold dormitory made warmer by the smile of the pretty girl who roomed with you your first year; the japes and sneers in the laboratory giving way to grudging respect.

There is no diploma on your wall, and your memory echoes the blank plaster as you count one, two, three, four, five—scene: a man walks into the laboratory, like no man you have seen before. His hair is black as jet. His eyes are as deep as night. When he speaks—

Cut to: Dr. Markoff’s laboratory. You sit monitoring the elixir in the crucible. It must boil slowly. It will be ruined if it reaches its height too soon. Your hair is different, so it must be the past.

Cut to: the symphony. You wear a beautiful dress. You are beautiful, your black hair curled and tumbling down delicate sepia shoulders. Your eyes sparkle and cloud like flawed diamonds.

Dr. Markoff does not notice.

The Father, the acclaimed violinist, plays a string of undistinguished notes. The notes he plays do not match the position of his fingers on the strings. The audience applauds wildly.

How long have you loved Dr. Markoff? It is a love outside of time. He is the storm, gathered, the moment before lightning. He is the moment itself. He is potential.

He has never touched you.

You think, sometimes, of fairy bread and pomegranates.

You never remember why.

Fast-forward—the gorilla pounds its fists against the cage’s bars and howls; you scream, leaping backwards. One of the dogs Dr. Markoff keeps for his experiments leaps up to defend you. He barks madly until the gorilla cowers back against the far wall.

“I wish you’d get rid of that beast!” you sob.

“Be reasonable,” Dr. Markoff says. His voice is dark honey; his smile never reaches his eyes. “He is very useful to my experiments. And as long as my henchman remembers to lock his cage, he can never harm you.”

The Henchman lives below the laboratory. Dr. Markoff lives in an apartment adjacent. You live in an efficiency above.

Why is The Henchman here? He is not in love with Dr. Markoff. His motivation is significantly less complex.

He is paid.

“I have arrested the spread of acromegaly,” Dr. Markoff cries in triumph, his eyes wide. “But this is not enough! Soon I will have perfected the elixir—I will be able to reverse the process! Can you imagine—the power—to be the only man who knows—”

“You’re mad!” you cry. “To think of using it in that way! When you could ease such suffering around the world, you think only of gain—”

Rewind.

“You’re mad!” you cry. “She will never love you! How could she love you? How could she—”

Dr. Markoff advances—

Rewind.

“You’re mad!” you cry. “And ungrateful—all these years I’ve kept your secret, that you are not the true Dr. Markoff—that you killed him in a fit of jealous rage and stole his life’s work—”

“And why not?” Dr. Markoff thunders. “When he stole from me the love of my dear wife! Ah, but I had my revenge! I knew he did not love her—would not love her when acromegaly distorted the features of her fair face—” the briefest shadow across his face, a fleeting cloud barely glimpsed through a storm—“and stole her faith in me, so that she did not believe I could find the cure—so that she took solace instead in a plunge from the cliffs!”

“I won’t let this go on any longer!” you declare. Your blood sings with lightning despite how many times you have made this speech . . . how many times have you made this speech? “I’ll go to the authorities! I’ll tell them what I know—”

Dr. Markoff advances, a panther with claws unsheathed. His eyes are as deep as night. His eyes are—

“You know nothing,” he growls. “You remember nothing.”

“I know nothing,” you whisper. His body is so close to yours. You are falling. “I remember nothing.”

He moves away from you. You feel the loss like an iceberg cleaving into the ocean. Something else cleaves with it, feather-light as snow.

“You are only my assistant,” he says. “Never forget that.”

Forget?

Interior shot: close-up on Dr. Markoff’s hand, lifting the latch of the gorilla’s cage.

Interior shot: your room above the laboratory. You recline in a low-cut silk nightgown that ripples like silver down to your ankles, your feet bare against the soft sheets of your bed.

Exterior shot: the stairway leading to your room. The gorilla shuffles slowly into the night. Its feet pad clumsily across the ground; it pauses to sniff the air. It snorts, and begins to slope up the steps to your room, the wood creaking below its weight . . .

Interior shot: your room. You are curled beneath a blanket thin as gossamer, your dark curls splayed on the white pillow. Your eyes are closed, but your forehead is creased; your lips purse in a soundless cry.

Cut to: the creak of a door, slowly opening. A shadow on the floor.

Cut to: you toss restlessly on the bed, as if visited by bad dreams. One strap of your nightgown has slipped from your shoulder.

Cut to: the gorilla looms in the doorway, nearly bursting its frame. The frame of the story creaks beneath its weight. It sniffs the air, and grunts.

Cut to: you toss restlessly on the bed, as if visited by bad dreams. A shadow covers the lower half of your body. There is the creaking of old wood. The shadow grows larger and larger—

Skip scene.

You enter the laboratory. Dr. Markoff starts, and then smiles. “Ah, my dear—did you sleep well?”

“Not at all!” For a moment, there are only the words; your mind hangs in the air halfway through a trapeze act. Then more words come: “That damn dirty beast got out of its cage! Thank heavens your dog was there to protect me.”

The words spill in your mind like ink in water, blossoming into memories: yes, you awoke, you screamed, the ape advanced, and then that dear dog leaping forward, barking madly, driving the monster back into its cage where you latched it. Yes, this is how it happened.

This was always how it happened.

“Oh dear, that is most unfortunate,” Dr. Markoff says. “Still, you are well, are you not?”

“Yes,” you say, a reflex, your head bobbing like a puppet on a string.

Rewind. You sit monitoring the elixir in the crucible. Dr. Markoff has told you not to take your eyes off the elixir. Your hair is the same, so it must be the present.

Dr. Markoff enters. Your eyes flick to his broad shoulders, back to the bubbling liquids before he can see.

So it is this scene, then: The Father has come to the clinic to demand that Dr. Markoff cease his pursuit of The Beautiful Daughter.

Dr. Markoff presses the button that slides back the hidden panel in his bookshelf. He carefully takes out the jar marked Acromegaly.

Fast-forward: you have threatened one too many times to go to the police. Dr. Markoff slaps you, calls for The Henchman. The Henchman wrestles you to the next room, ties you to a chair.

If you cannot have Dr. Markoff, you will have his antagonist. You will have The Father.

Rewind to the night of the symphony. You slip between frames to his dressing room, after The Beautiful Daughter and The Fiancé have left. He is wearing only a robe.

You straddle him, gripping the still firm muscle of his broad shoulders. He laughs and calls you a “fast woman,” but that does not stop his hands from moving under your dress. His hands are experienced on your nipples as you bounce up and down on his cock. You come together, crying out, clutching.

You revisit this scene several times.

He never remembers you in any of your subsequent scenes together.

Fast-forward: “You will marry me!” cries Dr. Markoff to The Beautiful Daughter.

“Never!” she cries, jerking her porcelain cheek back from the touch of his lips.

They are framed perfectly. The black of Dr. Markoff’s suited arm crushing her to his chest, the white silk heaving over her breasts as she strains away. Power and weakness tight as a clenched fist, as soft as an arched neck. His hair as dark as jet, her eyes moonstone-bright with fear.

His eyes the heat of coals, her skin the flames of the sun . . .

This is the second before the lightning strike and cannot be sustained—he must ravish her or she must escape, and at this point in the narrative the film will allow neither. Any second now the camera will cut away.

Freeze-frame.

To live in this moment, you think, watching. But as whom?

As The Beautiful Daughter, a fragile blossom swept up by a thunderstorm, crushed deliciously by iron hands?

As Dr. Markoff, the power surging in the muscles of your body, seizing the sun itself and demanding its surrender . . .

Rewind.

Now that you think about it, there is something odd about Dr. Markoff having a large jar marked Acromegaly behind a secret panel in his laboratory.

Surely that can’t be how acromegaly works?

Fast-forward. The gorilla looms in the doorway, nearly bursting its frame. You toss restlessly on the bed, as if visited by bad dreams. A shadow covers the lower half of your body. There is the creaking of old wood. The shadow grows larger and larger—

You open your eyes.

There is a zipper down the gorilla’s front.

You reach out and slowly unzip the gorilla suit. Inside is a lithe, attractive young man who is blushing deeply. He is entirely naked.

“It gets hot in there,” he says, and blushes deeper.

You look down. He has a very nice penis.

“I think I like you,” you say, and pull him into a kiss.

He sheds the rest of the suit and you shed your nightgown, and you have sex on top of the gossamer-thin blanket, while the sweet, confused dog whines at the side of the bed. About halfway through, one of you has to get up and take it outside, giving it a biscuit before locking the door.

Fast-forward: you have threatened one too many times to go to the police. Dr. Markoff slaps you, call for The Henchman. The Henchman wrestles you to the next room, ties you to a chair.

Rewind. Your shy attractive young man is already peeling off the oppressive suit. You spread it like a blanket on the floor of his cage and ride him until you come.

He never stops blushing. His smile is so lovely. He looks at you like you are the sun.

He always starts and ends with a little kiss on the cheek, as if he is picking you up for a milkshake at the pharmacist’s.

“This is fun,” he always says. “Come back soon?”

“I shall go to the police!” The Father thunders. He turns his back to Dr. Markoff.

Dr. Markoff’s eyes are as deep as night. Lightning flashes inside them.

He grabs the marble bust of his dead wife from the mantelpiece, and brings it down upon The Father’s head.

You get a little careless. A test audience catches half of your rendezvous with your shy attractive young man. Hush money is paid; the footage is burned.

It stays in your memory like a half-penciled sketch: the line of a back arching upward, the grip of your fingers against his shoulder.

How strange people are: they have come to see a film where beauty is held captive. The Father, infected with acromegaly—is acromegaly infectious? This seems more and more unlikely the more you think about it—his chiseled profile swollen into something at which they can gawp and cringe, secure in their faux velvet cinema seats, thinking themselves safe. The Beautiful Daughter, virtuous and pure, hostage to the carnal demands of the dark foreigner who can save The Father.

How strange people are: so outraged to see beauty free.

“You are only my assistant,” Dr. Markoff says. “Never forget that.”

His eyes are deep as night. His hair is black as jet. His hair is brushing against the collar of his shirt, leaving black smears behind.

Fast-forward: “You will marry me!” cries Dr. Markoff to The Beautiful Daughter.

“Never!” she cries, jerking her porcelain cheek back from the touch of his lips.

How long have you loved Dr. Markoff?

The Beautiful Daughter is very beautiful.

“Never forget that,” Dr. Markoff says. His accent wavers.

Rewind. Rewind, rewind! The names scroll across the screen, white cursive against the dark backdrop of Dr. Markoff’s eyes, made blacker and slanted by the kohl around them. There is no name like Dr. Markoff’s. There is no name like yours. What is your name? Fast-forward—

“—forget that,” says Dr. Markoff. His hair is black as jet. His hair is dripping shoe polish under studio lights. He is sweating makeup, streaks and pools of darker grey at his neck. He is wearing a false nose; its edges bite into his pale skin.

He has never been Dr. Markoff at all.

Was this the only reason you loved him?

That you thought there might be someone else in this film like you?

Fast-forward: you have threatened one too many times to go to the police. Dr. Markoff slaps you, call for The Henchman. He wrestles you to the next room, ties you to a chair.

You struggle against surprisingly soft ropes. The Henchman’s hands are callused and warm on your ankles as he kneels between your knees. He does not grab hard enough to bruise, only firm enough that you cannot escape to spoil the next scene. He looks a little like Dr. Markoff, but taller, darker. The lines of his face have been filled in by years rather than sketched sharply with greasepaint.

“Déjà vu,” he murmurs. His voice low but rough around the edges, like stones worn not quite smooth by long travels through stormy water. “Hope it’s not too boring . . . ”

Like Dr. Markoff, but softly faded, like a photograph left in the sun . . .

Sudden heat pools between your legs.

Your left hand is still free, and you run your fingers over the rim of his ear.

He looks up, surprised eyes. Kind eyes.

“While you’re down there . . . ”

He sees what you mean, and grins.

The Fiancé usually interrupts The Henchman halfway through tying you up. This time, when he walks in on The Henchman with his head under your skirt, your nails digging into the chair as you moan, he is so embarrassed he drops his gun, flees the laboratory, and never rescues The Beautiful Daughter.

The film shudders to a halt, uncertain where to go next, as your orgasm ripples across its span, sending sparks like scratches on the tape to flare in every scene.

“Oh, Father, oh no!” The Beautiful Daughter cries. She is convulsed, bent double over his prone form. His fingers are thick and distorted; his face is like clay molded by a child.

“His heartbeat is very faint,” you say.

Tears glisten like perfect diamonds on the marble of her skin. “Oh, please, please, isn’t there anything you can do?”

“Why, yes!” And there it is, right in your brain, no waiting for the blank wall to slide aside and reveal the answer behind the secret panel. “Dr. Markoff found an elixir—”

The syringe is already in your hand, sloppy editing. The Beautiful Daughter smiles like the sun and you discover that you don’t mind.

You slide the syringe beneath skin that gives like rubber and the layers of film melt against each other, superimposed. Pause scene—

A PA slips between the frames and escorts The Father to his trailer, where several technicians carefully remove the latex layers from his face and reapply makeup to hide the chafing and his allergic reaction to the glue.

—until the illness fades away from The Father’s face and he is in the arms of The Beautiful Daughter again. They smile, and the Fiancé smiles, and you smile, and Dr. Markoff’s body is on the floor in the background, and The Henchman is offstage, and the sweet young man will never be seen again, was never seen in the first place.

This is the end of the film.

You love The Beautiful Daughter.

You love her even after the film ends.

Your entire love is after the film ends: helping her ease The Father into the car ride home, offering your services as a visiting nurse, accepting a week later her spontaneous offer to move into her mansion to better care for him. He recovers quickly and goes back on tour, but she won’t hear of you moving out. You play tennis and take in Broadway shows.

You say goodbye to your shy attractive young man, who is going back home to his family.

“It’s rough in Hollywood,” he says. “They never give me a part without a mask.”

You miss him. You would miss him more if not for The Beautiful Daughter. Her smile is blinding. Her skin is blinding. She bounds down the stairs to greet you like a shooting star.

When you touch, finally, truly, it is in a bed that could be filmed like an ocean, silk sheets curling into waves. Your hands skim and stroke all her unfilmable places, soft nipples, light downy hair wet with desire, freckles on the backs of her knees. Where your hands skim blushes with—you have heard the words before, but now you see them, the pink of the blood under skin, the blue of the arching delicate veins, and you know you have never seen color before, that your world has never contained such hues—your hands burst shades and gradations into the world where they touch her, as if peach and cream, amethyst and sapphire, flax and copper, were living things that could blossom and quicken and thrive under heat like tropical vines that wrench the foundation of your world, shift its moorings until the two of you are spinning at the end of an unraveling roll of film and then even your grip slips—

For one moment, you live in another film entirely, and color is infinite as air.

You are kissing The Beautiful Daughter when The Fiancé walks in.

“Oh, don’t worry!” she cries, laying one hand on your arm as you start up from the sofa, pulling you back down. “He doesn’t mind.” She lays her other hand on his arm. “We both like you so dearly—I like both of you so dearly—and he doesn’t have an interest in these things, you know.”

You regard The Fiancé speculatively. You think of your shy attractive young man, and what a pretty picture they would make. “No interest at all?”

The Fiancé blushes; a hint of color lingering in the air from your kiss with The Beautiful Daughter tries to suffuse his cheeks but is rebuffed, turns the wall behind him a glowing peach for a split second instead.

“None at all,” he says firmly. He smiles; his hand rests thoughtlessly against The Beautiful Daughter’s shoulder. You try to imagine having that confidence, that square-shouldered resolve. “But I hope you will join us for a concert once in a while.”

Rewind to the penultimate scene. Interior: laboratory. Dr. Markoff and The Fiancé struggle for Dr. Markoff’s gun. Dr. Markoff holds it tight in his grip, his finger flicking at the trigger, the black metal gleaming as deep as his eyes, but The Fiancé’s strong arms bunch under his shirtsleeves, forcing the barrel to the side—

The Beautiful Daughter crouches next to The Father where he lies motionless on the operating table, presses her beautiful cheek against his ridged and swollen one—

The Fiancé slips, and the two men fall to the floor, obscured from the camera’s view—

You are not in the scene. You are in the hallway, still halfway bound, helpless.

Scene: a man walks into the laboratory, like no man you have seen before. His hair is black as jet. Your hair is different again, so it must be farther in the past than you have ever been before.

His eyes, deep as night, skip over the diploma on your wall. Light on the bust you keep on the mantle; a fleeting likeness, but the best your inartistic hands could capture.

When he speaks, you hear arsenic being poured into a glass of wine. “So this is where my wife was spending all of her time.”

Your heart thunders in your chest. You stay sitting. You are monitoring the crucible. It must boil slowly, or the effects will be lost.

He steps closer, the tread of a panther. His eyes light greedily upon the elixir, the notes beside it. “Could this have saved her?”

“I don’t understand how she contracted acromegaly in the first place,” you say. “That isn’t how acromegaly works—”

“What kind of woman are you?” he interrupts. “You are beautiful. You could have a man. Why her—”

Fast-forward: You are not in the scene. You are in the hallway, still halfway bound, helpless. You observe through the proscenium of the open door:

The Fiancé slips, and the two men fall to the floor, obscured from the camera’s view—

Rewind: He is clenching and unclenching his fists. The official autopsy said the marks around her neck came from the rocks when she threw herself from the cliffs.

“I loved her,” you whisper. “And she never loved you. No woman ever could.”

He bares his teeth. “Look into my eyes and tell me that.”

Without thinking, you do. His eyes are as deep as night. He looms before you like a mountain in winter.

Fast-forward: You are not in the scene. You are in the hallway, still halfway bound, helpless. You observe through the proscenium of the open door:

The Fiancé slips, and the two men fall to the floor, obscured from the camera’s view, and there are two kinds of films that this film could be, the kind where the gun goes off and Dr. Markoff crumples to the floor, or the kind where the gun goes off and scores a long groove into the wallpaper, and he is led away in handcuffs . . .

Freeze-frame. Your hands are unbound. They were never bound in the first place; you only thought they were.

“You are my assistant.” His voice rumbles like a gathering storm; you are falling into the eye of the storm, into his eyes. “Only my assistant. Never forget that.”

“Only your assistant.” The words choke in your throat like your tongue being pulled out of your mouth.

“You love me,” he says. “Madly, deeply, with no hope of return, or escape.”

You reach out a hand to steady yourself. It brushes the diploma on the wall, sends it crashing to the ground. A shard stings your eye, but you cannot look away from his eyes, his eyes are . . .

His lips brush yours, and the film slips into the projector, almost ready to begin.

His lips brush your ear as he withdraws, and for a second you see color, the deep red of pomegranates, as your love smiles. “Goodbye, Dr. Markoff.”

Fast-forward:

He crumples to the floor. Blood seeps out around him, as black and sweet as night.

The Beautiful Daughter says, “You are unlike any woman I have ever known.”

“Have you known many women?” you tease.

“You are unlike any woman I have ever known,” says The Beautiful Daughter. “You move through life unbound by the laws of the universe. When you speak, I hear red wine being poured into a crystal glass. Your hair is as dark as jet. Your eyes sparkle and cloud like flawed diamonds . . . ”

About the Author

Gabriela Santiago is a writer and performer previously published in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, The Dark, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, among others. She is a Clarion graduate and almost done working her way through a 50-pack of horror movie classics.