Author: Mrs. Cope PM
Carlisle was alone, but more than that, he was lonely. He came to Central Park on a spring day in 1902 to be one in an anonymous sea of souls, but instead, found a kindred spirit - one who would change his outlook and encourage him to find a home.Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy/Friendship - Carlisle - Words: 6,600 - Reviews: 13 - Favs: 7 - Follows: 2 - Published: 06-29-11 - id: 7132014
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A/N: I wrote this story as a part of Fandom Fights Tsunami. Along with 217 other authors (yes, Snowqueen Icedragon is one, with an MotU outtake), we were able to raise over $65,000 to help victims of the Tsunami. Our goal was to reach $75K - and you can still contribute by going to making a donation to any organization supporting the tsunami relief effort (like Red Cross), then mailing your donation receipt to the good folks at fandomfightstsunami (.) blogspot (.) com.
I owe a tremendous amount of thanks to my awesome beta, Mr. Bigg, who not only encouraged me and helped with editorial changes, but also provided inspiration and solutions when I got stuck. He's the best!
I hope you'll like this story.
All characters are the property of Stephenie Meyer. No disrespect or copyright infringement is intended.
I had always loved coming to the park, and today was no exception. The dark, gray clouds did not dampen the mood of the visitors: Old men fed the pigeons and boasted quietly to each other, reliving days gone by. Society women strolled slowly by, discussing operas they'd secretly slept through or had never seen. Children laughed and played all around the mall; nannies scurried between the benches chasing after their charges.
I sat on the bench watching the passing parade, grateful for the cloudy day. A day outside, a day in the crowd – it was a welcome change from the hospital. I could smell the coming rain on the air and confirmed the brewing rainstorm with a upward glance. They run away from the rain. The day was mine to enjoy for as long as it would last. The thought brought a sad smile to my lips as I returned my gaze back to my hands where I held my hat.
"Yes, rain is coming," a woman's voice sounded over my right shoulder. I turned, looking up into her face.
"Good day, Miss Kamienski," I said, placing my hat on my head and standing. "I trust you're well?"
"I am, Dr. Cullen. I am well, come shine, come rain." We took our seat on our usual bench, both looking up to the threatening sky.
Erna and I had come to know each other through our love for the park. Our bench, as I'd come to think of it, was half way down the Central Park mall, alone in the midst of the hustle and bustle of New York. We found our freedom here: I, from my lonely existence, and she, from her round-the-clock servitude.
The day we'd met, I had felt lost and alone, unsure how long I could go on, empty and friendless. Tuesdays were my off day from the hospital when I came here to the respite of the trees, clouds and healthy people. It was a welcome change from the infectious ward of Riverside Hospital, where I worked. The park was across the river and down the avenue, an easy jaunt for a day away. It was my escape from solitude to anonymity, where I could be one of the crowd, like anyone else, anonymous and accepted.
She had strolled to the bench, speaking softly in a heavy accent. "Seat is taken?"
"No, please," I answered, standing and removing my hat, motioning her to sit..
"Thank you." She sat stiffly, her back ramrod straight, her hands folded in her lap. After a few minutes, she spoke. "Rain?"
I looked up, happy that once again, my day off coincided with the clouds. "Yes, I believe so." I looked back to my hat, averting my eyes from the formal woman sitting beside me.
"Good. I like rain." She unpinned her hat, sitting with it in her lap. "I am Erna Kamiensky. I am new here." Her accent was thick.
"Jestem lekarzem Carlisle Cullen," I said in Polish, matching her accent. "Miło cię poznać."
"No. No Polish. America, English." She wagged a shopworn, gloved finger at me in admonishment.
"I beg your pardon," I said humbly, bowing my head. "My name is Dr. Carlisle Cullen. Pleased to meet you."
She laughed, a low throaty chuckle. "I, too, am pleased," she responded. She eyed me out the corner of her eyes, assessing. "A doctor, hmm? You speak Polish well. You like rain?"
"I like the clouds," I replied. The easy conversation was a surprise. I hadn't expected to talk to her so readily, but there was something pure and innocent in the tone of her voice, the way she spoke. I responded honestly and openly, surprising myself. After hundreds of years keeping to myself, here I sat, engaging a perfect stranger in conversation.
She sat stiffly, her frayed high collar brushing against her chin. Her green wool dress was old and repaired many times over, but impeccably clean. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply through her nose, lifting her chin to catch the breeze. "Ah," she said softly, then looked to me expectantly. "You like park?"
And so our friendship began.
"How long I know you now?" Her question broke my reverie, bringing me back to the mall, the passersby, the trees, and Erna.
"Oh, about two years, I suppose," I said, aiming for the inexactitude of human nature, though I knew to the minute how long it had been. "Why?"
"It is good two years, no?" Her head was cocked to the side as she waited for my reaction.
"It's been a splendid two years, my friend," I replied. It had been a splendid two years, two years without loneliness; two years spent anticipating the time when I could see her again. We had never leaned to each other romantically, but our friendship was strong.
"Carlisle, I bring you something." She turned, digging into her massive bag at her side.
"Brought, Erna." I said, smiling as I corrected her English. "You've already done it, so it's 'brought'."
"Czy kiedykolwiek nauczyć się tego języka?" she huffed and sighed. She was learning quickly, but her impatience with her limited English was a source of frustration for her, and an endearment to me.
"Yes, Erna, you'll learn," I chuckled. "You're doing very well; you should be proud of yourself. Give it time."
"Yes, Carlisle, I have time," she said sweetly, smiling back at me. "I brought you something." She held out a small package wrapped in tissue paper and string. "It is little. I make it for you."
She pushed the package toward me. "Thank you. May I ask the occasion?" I took the small package, noting its lightweight and lumpy heft.
"You have birthday?" Her head cocked to the side in inquiry.
"Yes, everyone does," I said untying the string. "But mine is not for many months yet."
"Then this for last year." The string fell away and the paper unraveled. A small, tightly knit scarf tumbled forth in my hands, pale grey and soft. "Scarf, for your…" She motioned with extended fingers to the hollow between her shoulder and chin as she thought. "Neck? Neck. Keep your neck warm."
I leaned forward as I examined the scarf. The gift was far too beautiful and far too extravagant for her modest means. The weave was tight, each line perfectly knotted. It must have taken quite some time to make. "Erna, this is beautiful. Thank you," I said, draping the elegant scarf around my neck. "I will treasure this always."
She waved away my compliment with a threadbare-gloved hand. It was like her to go without for herself so that she might give a gift to a friend. She so rarely allowed a compliment of any kind; I could tell she was pleased. Her embarrassment silenced her and brought a bloom to her cheeks. I looked down at the scarf, gently rubbing the fabric between my fingers, admiring every stitch. It was the first gift I'd received in hundreds of years, and I had no words to describe the joy I felt.
We sat for a few moments in comfortable silence, each possessed with our own thoughts. My friend. The words were tinged with happiness but laced with sorrow and longing, a gift more dear than the lovely scarf she'd made for me. I wanted nothing more than to tell her about myself, about my past, about who and what I truly was. But that was forbidden, dangerous; I could never place her in jeopardy like that.
"We walk?" She perched on the edge of the bench, ready to stand. "It's good, walk. Look," she said pointing to the children gathered around the donkey and its handlers. "We can follow donkey boys."
I stood once again, jutting out my arm so that she might take it. Her touch was feather-light as she stood. We walked slowly behind the noisy throng of children, watching as one lucky child was selected to ride on the donkey's back.
"Erna, have you ever wanted to have children?" I asked as we strolled. She watched the jumping mass of boys and girls, wistfulness painting her features.
"Yes," she said in her guileless voice. "After mother and father die, I want children to have family. But is selfish, no?"
"I don't think that's selfish, Erna. It's natural, human."
"Natural, human," she repeated. "Would I be good mother?"
"I think you'd be a wonderful mother. Like your mother, loving." The stories she'd told me of her childhood years in Poland were happy, even though her family was poor. Her parents gave her all that they could; their final gift was enough money for passage to America.
"I hope so. Loving, but not so poor, yes?" She laughed. "Must have husband first. Hard to look."
"You have time, Erna. I'm certain love will find you."
"And what of you, Carlisle? No children? No family?" There was no judgment in her voice, just curiosity. "Where will love find you? Do you want family?"
The question jerked a knot of longing inside me, one that had to remain private for Erna's sake. "Yes, I'd like a family very much, Erna, but I'm afraid I can't have children."
She stopped walking and turned to face me. "No?" Her face was a mask of pity.
"No," I confirmed, pulling her to walk again. "But I've grown accustomed to that fact. Perhaps, one day, I will meet someone who needs a husband and a father. One never knows."
"I know. You are good father. Your children love you, want to be like you. Happy, happy children with happy mother and father." She looked forward again, as if scanning the years ahead of me. "These children, not of you, but like you. You will… I don't know word. Przyjąć."
"Yes, adopt. You adopt children. They love you." She turned to me and smiled. "It will be good. You will see."
"I can only hope that what you say is true. I haven't had a family in a very long time. Perhaps that's why I studied medicine. My patients are my family."
"Ah. But your family, all very sick," she said, patting my arm.
"Yes, they are. But they need someone to care for them, and that's what I've sworn to do." We had often discussed my duties at the hospital. Most of my patients did not survive.
"But it bring you no joy, Carlisle," she said, turning to look at me. "This worries me. Having family should make you happy."
"Helping people makes me happy, Erna."
"But bring you no joy," she said dismissively, turning back to watch the children. We took a few more steps, walking together in companionable silence.
"My friend brings me joy," I said at last, breaking the silence. "It's good to have a friend." She tightened her grip on my arm, squeezing me to her side, and smiled in response.
A carriage cut in front of us, separating us from the children. She dropped my arm automatically and lowered her gaze. The woman who employed her was strict and judgmental; she did not allow Erna to entertain, and forbade her to see men. Erna lived in constant fear that her employer would discover her strolls in the park with me and fire her without warning or notice, though Erna and I were friends, and friends only. I turned away from Erna, playing my part to disguise our friendship.
The coaches gone, Erna turned to face me. "Thank you, Carlisle. You are good friend." I smiled in response, offering her my arm again. She took it, and turned her eyes forward. "Next week, I go on boat."
"A boat?" Was she leaving? I felt a bit of panic rise through my chest and into my throat, blocking me from saying more.
"Yes, a boat. Sunday school picnic with my lady. She pay for me to go, just for a day." She smiled softly, and I swallowed my panic. She wasn't leaving.
"Well, Erna, that sounds like fun. Where is the picnic? Which ship are you taking?"
"The boat is the General Slocum. Big boat, big wheels…" She struggled for words, motioning a turning circle.
"A paddle boat?"
"Yes. Two pad dells." She looked at me and smiled.
"When?" I hoped I didn't sound too demanding. I looked forward to our lazy days in the park so much, I didn't want to miss even one.
"Wednesday. So still have Tuesday, here," she said, turning her gaze forward again. I smiled in relief, happy that our days together were important to her, too.
We reached Bethesda Fountain, and stood, gazing at the splashing water. "I love this fountain. Angel of Water," she said, staring up to the statue that graced the center of the fountain. "Maybe water good for us, Carlisle. Maybe water… take us away from here."
"Maybe… Where would you go, Erna? Where do you want the water to take us?"
"I don't know. Maybe no place here," she said, looking wistfully at the angel. "Maybe to angel home, maybe to our heaven."
I smiled. "That's a lovely dream." We sat in silence, watching the water play and splash the cherubs below, each of us imagining our own heaven as the rain began to fall.
"Pardon me," I called to the clerk putting away stock with her back to me. She turned and looked at me, pushed the box back to the shelf, and scrambled down the ladder quickly.
"Yes? I mean, how may I help you?" her words came out in a breathy whisper and her cheeks burned scarlet.
"I'd like to buy a pair of gloves for a friend."
"Oh," she replied, noticeably crestfallen. "Certainly sir. If you could tell me the kind of gloves you're looking for…" I crossed my arms and placed my fingers over my mouth, trying to make it look as if I hadn't thought this through. She sighed. "Everyday or fancy?"
"I was hoping for something in between," I said gently.
"Did you have a particular color in mind?"
"Green," she repeated, pulling her lips into a straight line. She walked to the end of the counter and tugged a box from the middle of a stack on the shelf. "Let's see what we have."
She set the box on the counter and pulled off the lid. A sea of green in varying hues greeted me, all in different textures and finishes. None of them were right, none as unique and beautiful as Erna's soul.
"Are there any others?"
"We do have some that just came in, although they're a bit odd and very expensive," the clerk offered hesitantly. She turned away from me, bent down below the counter and returned with a box large enough for one pair. "We don't put them out because they're, well, they're odd. Everyday kid leather gloves, wrist length," she opened the box and pulled the tissue aside. "With pearl beading."
The gloves were simple and elegant, their beauty only apparent upon closer examination. The green was dark, but weightless, the shade of the underside of maple leaves in early winter. At the wrist was a small split cuff that folded over to display tiny seed pearls fashioned into beads of varying sizes, clustered together. They were modest and tasteful and lovely; they were, in a word, perfect. "I'll take them."
"Are you certain? They're very expensive."
"I'd like to have them monogrammed. You do that, don't you?"
"Yes, sir, we do, for an extra fee."
"Perfect. Can they be ready by next Tuesday morning?"
"Certainly, as you wish." The clerk placed the lid back over the gloves and pulled out her receipt book. She bent over the counter, pen ready. "Your name, sir?"
"Dr. Carlisle Cullen, Riverside Hospital." Her head snapped up, the fear apparent in her eyes. Anyone from the hospital was a suspected carrier of disease, and I was no exception. She pulled the receipt book with her as she stepped to the far end of the counter.
"What initials would you like on the gloves?"
"EK, here," I pointed to a spot at the wrist, but took care not to touch the gloves. "A plain script, elegant but not elaborate."
"I understand, sir. Anything else?"
"That will be seven dollars and sixty-seven cents," she said pulling herself to her full height, as if she were expecting an argument.
I pulled a ten-dollar bill from my wallet. She eyed the money in my own gloved hand, clearly afraid to take it from me. I laid it on the counter. "Please, keep the change. And have them ready by first thing Tuesday morning. I'll be by to pick them up."
She tore out the receipt and pushed it toward me, then took a step back.
"Thank you," I said, and left the store.
I rushed away from the shop with the gloves, my head swimming with giddiness. I was sure she would like the gloves, and I was bursting with the anticipation of giving her them to her. I arrived at our bench too keyed up to sit. I laid the gift box on the bench and paced, eyeing the present. I picked the present up, holding it behind my back, and paced some more. I jammed it inside my coat, and paced back and forth, imagining the surprise on her face as I withdrew it and handed it to her.
I allowed my stress to manifestthis way for over an hour when my excitement began to turn to annoyance. Where was she? This was so unlike her; she was nothing if not punctual. Perhaps the train had broken down; perhaps she was ill; perhaps she didn't have money for a carriage from the station. A million possibilities swept through my mind, each as compelling as the last, freezing me into inaction. Another hour passed before I convinced myself that I should go to the station.
I turned on my heel to leave when I saw her moving slowly across the mall. Something was wrong. Her eyes were downcast, unusual for her. The proud angle of her jaw was missing, and she moved as if she were in pain.
I rushed to her side. "Erna?" I whispered her name, afraid to jar or scare her.
A smile brushed across her features. "Carlisle," she replied, my name on her lips like a sigh of relief.
"What happened? Are you all right?"
"Go there. Sit." She motioned to our bench with her chin.
I helped her to the bench. As she bent to sit, she took a long, shuddered breath in through her teeth, pain lancing across her brow. "Erna? What's happened? Are you ill?"
"My friend," she began, speaking soft and low. "I do not want to tell you. Is bad. You not be mad?"
"Erna, no, of course not. Why would I be mad at you?"
"No, not at me. Not mad at me," she said, looking down. "Missus see me in the park last week."
"What –, when?" My mind flashed back to the scene. It must have been when the carriage passed. "What did she do?"
"She cannot hurt me, Carlisle. Please," she looked up at me, her eyes pleading. "Please, sit. Be friend. She cannot win." She patted the bench next to her.
"Erna," I said as I sat, my voice filled with unbridled rage. "What did she do to you?"
"Is not important. I am here. You are here. We are friends," she said with determination. "I work for her. I am not slave." She raised her chin, her jaw jutting out at proud angles. This was the Erna I knew.
"Will you go back to work for her?"
"It is my job, my home," she said matter-of-factly. "I look for new job, leave there soon." She smiled at me. "Maybe look at hospital, you never know. For now, work there. And tomorrow, boat ride. Good. Fun."
"Erna," I began, but she held up her gloved hand. "No more sad talk. Day is nice. Maybe rain." She looked up at the clouds.
It was clear that she did not wish to linger on this topic, but I couldn't let it go. She was hurting, stiff, as if she'd been beaten. She didn't' deserve that – no one should have to live that way. But Erna, once decided, stuck to that decision. She needed me to act like her friend, not like the crazed avenger I felt inside. I swallowed my anger. "Erna, I can put in a good word for you at the hospital, if you'd like." I tried to stay calm, level, though everything inside of me was screaming.
"Good. Next week, I come to you." She looked away from me, down to her lap. As if she saw it for the first time, she picked at a finger of her glove, where the mending had unraveled.
My ebullient mood had evaporated upon seeing her state, but it was clear she did not wish to discuss it further. I tried to gather some remaining shred of excitement; when that failed, I simply said, "I have something for you."
"For me? Is not my birthday?"
"It's for last year, then." I pulled the flat box from my coat and handed it to her. Her eyes followed the box, only seeking my gaze when I placed the gift in her hands. Her eyes sparkled and danced with excitement. Given her tender condition, I could not find the joy within me to smile.
She took the box and opened it slowly. As she moved the tissue aside, she inhaled deeply then stopped breathing. "Very beautiful," she exhaled slowly, admiration drenching her words. "Too much. Too beautiful." She held the gloves in her hands, looking to my eyes.
"Not beautiful enough for you, Erna," I said as I pulled her hand to mine. I carefully pulled the worn, frayed gloves from her hands, and set them aside on the bench behind me. I held the mouth of the glove open as she slipped her calloused hand inside.
"Ah. Feel so good," she breathed as the first glove slid on. The second glove slid on as easily as the first, a perfect fit. She held her hands up, admiring the gloves as she turned them from side to side. "This is most beautiful thing I have," she murmured, "Ever. Thank you."
"It's my pleasure, Erna," I said lowly. She continued to admire the gloves, small sighs escaping when she was overcome. Her appreciative murmurs were gifts back to me, ones spoke of her pleasure, In spite of the obvious physical pain she felt. She smiled and thanked me again, and my heart recovered a piece of its joy.
She didn't take the gloves off. She placed her old threadbare pair in the box, and closed it. She looked out across the mall, her chin high and defiant. I watched her for a moment, amazed at her quiet strength and determination. She had made her mind up to survive this, to thrive past this, to go forward with the life she'd planned for herself. In that moment, I knew Erna was more than just my friend, she was my inspiration.
"Any friend of yours, Carlisle, is welcomed here. When will she be here?"
"Thank you, Duncan. She should be here next week. You won't regret this."
"We're happy to have her. Have her fill out this application, and turn it in when she arrives."
The chief of staff held the papers out and I took them, folding and placing them in my lab coat. "Thank you," I said, looking directly into his eyes. "I appreciate this."
I was surprised at how easily the request had gone, and was anxious to tell Erna. I wanted her away from the that woman as soon as possible.
"Ship aground!" The call rang out through the halls. "Shipwreck!"
I ran to sound, out the front door. People were running across the grounds, heading toward the lighthouse. I caught a young man by the arm as he ran, calling. "What's happened?"
"A boat ran aground. It's on fire!" My eyes shot toward the shore. "Women and child are abandoning the ship, sir. It's like Armageddon!" He ran away toward the offices, calling. "Ship aground! Shipwreck!"
I raced toward the shore, trying to stay at human speed, but not completely able to maintain the ruse. There were screams and shouts along the banks; women and children lined the shore. I scanned their faces as I passed, realization sinking in. They were all dead.
Bodies burned beyond recognition. Some were missing arms, legs, hands, others stared out blankly in bloated shock, and between them all were smaller pieces of humanity strewn amongst the rubble that was the wreckage of the ship. The wasted life choked in my throat, and though blood flowed freely into the sand, thirst was vanquished in the horror of the lost lives.
What was left of the ship sat at the waterline, a blackened empty hull. A crew hand with a deep gash across his arm, chest and face stumbled toward me. His eyes were vacant and empty, lips moving without sound. I stopped him, my hands on his shoulders, forcing him to see me. "What ship was this?"
"The General Slocum," he mumbled, pain lancing through his expression. "All gone, all gone now…" He broke away from me and staggered toward the hospital.
Terror gripped me as Erna's words surfaced in my mind. "A boat for joy, the General Slocum…" I looked out over the water, watching the coast boiling with the dead and dying. "Erna…" I breathed as the stench of burning flesh singed my nostrils. I had to move. I had to find her.
A dinghy full of disoriented and wounded women and children pulled to the shore. Gardeners worked with nurses and doctors to pull the victims from the rescue raft and lead them to the hospital. I seized the boat, and as the last child clabbered out, pushed it back into the sea. The oars sang across the tops of the splashing waves, the tempo of my rowing speeding the boat to a large concentration of flailing bodies.
"Help me!" A woman was barely above water, a child floating face down next to her. "My babe!" She would not be above water long. I turned the boat to her, bringing the side within reach. "Bab-b-b-b-eee," she sputtered as the water began to claim her. I pulled the child from the water, placing the body in the boat. Only the woman's hand were above water; her hair drifting in a gentle pool as she began to drown. I reached into the water, and pulled her hand. She struggled, bursting into the air with a gasp. I guided her hands to the side of the dinghy, never letting her go as she coughed and spluttered. "Hang on, hang on! Can you hang on? I've got to help the baby!" She gave a quick but weak nod.
The child was slightly blue and not breathing. I opened its mouth, clearing the throat, and breathed air into its lungs. The chest rose and fell, but the body possessed no life. I picked the child up, rapping gently on its back, and breathed into its mouth again. The woman wept quietly at the side of the boat, her teeth chattering. The baby was limp in my arms, a dead doll. I breathed into its mouth one more time, praying that it was God's will that the child should live. Suddenly, the child vomited, sea water and digested food spewing out of its mouth. I turned her on my knee, and patted her back. As soon as the sickness passed, she began to scream and cry. The woman gasped. "Annabelle!"
I laid the baby in the bottom of the boat, and reached for her mother. I pulled her from the water and set her on the dinghy seat slats. Though she was shaking with cold and fear, she reached for her child. She fell to the boat bottom and laid there, cradling her baby, repeating, "Annabelle, Annabelle, thank God, Annabelle…"
I tore off my lab coat and threw it over the woman and child, then dove into the water. The thrashing of the bodies still alive was a white noise, a numbing background to the work I had to do. I swam to the bodies, pushing them toward the boat. Their arms flailed and struck the sides of the ship, hands grasping in reflex, gasping for air. Those too weak to grasp, I pushed over the sides of the dinghy, watching the depth lest it become overloaded. When the boat could hold no more, I shoved it toward the shore.
I worked furiously to move those I could to a boat, flotsam or driftwood, trying to save as many live as I could as I searched for Erna. The slap and thrash of the water died out slowly, replaced with the cries, moans and shouts from those on the shore. I dove beneath the water, searching for that one familiar face that had eluded me, hoping against hope that I would not find it.
The boiling turbulence of the shipwrecked victims turned the waters black and murky. I dove deeper, searching for the river floor. Bodies long dead rose in ghostly flight as the air of their lungs inflated their chests. It was a nightmarish ballet danced in silence below the surface of the water, made more hellish and grotesque by the dying daylight. Finally, the river bottom wavered into view, itself a ghastly tableau of twisted and charred metal and body parts. I crawled along the riverbed, searching, unsure of what I sought.
Sunlight was gone; the water became calm. The only disturbance there beneath the waves was the flash of beacon from the North Brother Island lighthouse, a strobe of nightmare across the sea of death. My hope bled into the water. Despair calmed my strokes, and I hung in the water, desolate and drifting. I would never find her.
I closed my eyes, silently wishing a farewell to my friend. Lord, take her, I prayed as I drifted, beseeching the God of my father to find Erna's soul and take her into heaven. I was unsure of the time that had passed, the tears that had been shed, the lives that had been lost. I opened my eyes, resigning myself to return to the hospital to help those that had survived.
The beam of the lighthouse caught a movement on the sea bottom, catching my eye. I stared in the direction of the movement, watching the blades of light as they moved through the water. For several minutes, nothing moved, then suddenly, I saw a hand, someone waving to me from the river floor, inviting me, calling me to them. I swam toward the movement, curious and confused. I knew no human could survive beneath the icy waves for so long, but I could not dismiss what I had seen.
Again I held on the riverbed, unmoving, waiting for the movement to flag again. The minutes washed around me, empty and blank, then I saw it. There, on the river floor, a safe stuck in the silt, the words "General Slocum" shimmering in gold above dial. A woman's slender hand waved from below the weight, moving with the unseen tide. The skin of the arm was bluish and pale, but the motioning hand was green.
Realization broke across my consciousness as I dove to the safe. The skin of the hand was not green; it was a glove. No. I backpedaled, reaching the safe, afraid of what I would see. No! The gloved hand beckoned me again, and there, on the pearl covered wrist of the glove I saw the initials, EK in curvise script.
The remaining air in my lungs issued forth in a silent scream. I surged forward, heaving the safe away from the body it trapped below, the crack and snap of bone audible through the rushing waters. Erna's body seem to sigh as it twisted free of its watery grave, her chest split open at her heart, skin swirling like silk in the salty sea. Her face was calm, peaceful. Serene.
Sadness swept over me, regret filling those fissures left untouched by anguish. She couldn't be dead. Even though her lifeless body floated in my arms, I could not bring myself to accept her death. No, my mind screamed and echoed. My friend, gone.
Her arm floated free and waved to me one last time. The sickening grace of the dead limb unhinged me, and I grabbed her arm and sunk my teeth into the skin. She did not protest or plead; her hair drifted around her face in weightless billows. I bit her again, to the same empty response. I repeated the action, biting her over and over and over, forcing my venom into her tissues. Live, damn it! My thoughts echoed in my head as I bit her again and again. Her arm became pulpy, torn and shirred, yet no spark ignited within her.
Gently, I lowered Erna's cold body into the grave. With my hands, I'd dug the grave at the corner of the island, away from the site of the shipwreck, under a small patch of sky. It was calm and beautiful here, with lush vegetation and rocky shores, all glittering in the soft summer rain that fell. The stones unearthed as I dug were her headstones, piled upon each other to appear as a random outcropping of rock. To my eyes, the stones marked the final resting ground for my beloved friend, there beneath the open air, giving the rain she loved so well access to weep across her tomb.
I was covered in grime and dirt, my clothes soaked in saltwater. I kept vigil by the grave as the sun came up, motionless and unmoving, reminiscing over the times we'd strolled and spoken our dreams and desires to each other over the years. I had told her she had time, time to learn, time to love. I had been wrong; time was not her friend. Time had swept over her, left her behind, with all her ambitions and hopes unfulfilled. But, even so, even as the thief it was, time had given us friendship. For those few fleeting days, those hours, I knew I would be eternally grateful.
Through the sheer veil of rain, the sun shone brightly in the sky. The rays of the light touched the damp stones of her grave and glistened, as the reflected brightness sparkled off my skin. For that small moment, I did not care or seek to move. All the secrets I could not share with Erna in life, I would give freely in death. I stood, allowing the rainbow prisms to shine and bounce to her makeshift shrine. See me now, Erna. My eyes stung and prickled with the tears I could not shed as waves of grief washed over me. I stepped away from Erna's tomb, back into the cool, dark shadows. I laid in the dark, damp bracken, waiting for night to fall, watching over Erna's grave.
My life had been long, filled with experiences and people. I had traveled far and wide, seen every imaginable wonder of the world, witnessed what most only dreamed of. Yet my world had been empty, void of love and satisfaction. The inability to share, to talk, to laugh with another person – these had been denied to me.
In my short time with Erna, I'd found a friend. She was on the outside as well, alone and cut off from those around her; she rejoiced in her experience and longed for a friend, just as I had. Just as I did. Now that she was gone, I was, once again, unspeakably alone. I was unconvinced that I could return to the world of anonymity, of separation; now that I'd had companionship, I craved more.
The pile of rocks spoke no answer, gave no comfort. She was not there. Her soul went on to its just rewards. If the skies above held more for us than the twinkling of stars, then surely Erna had found a new home, a new life, one worthy of her. Some small part of me burned with bitterness of being left behind, while she was heaven bound.
I was forced to relive my selfish and ineffectual attempt to change her, pushing myself to accept the pain that burned me as my own doing. Beyond reason, beyond the knowledge that she was gone, I had wanted her to stay with me so desperately that I had allowed my bite to shred her corpse trying to reanimate her. Lord, forgive me. My prayer meant little, I knew, but forgiveness was all I could seek.
If I had but reached her in the final moments of her life, saved her from the crushing weight of the iron box that pinned her to the river bottom, if I had run more swiftly than death, her skin would now burn as the venom took hold. I would not be alone, nor would she. We could have had each other, forever, companions through time. But she was gone; Erna was not there. She had found her heaven. Given eternity, we could have found comfort in each other, perhaps love. But now, she was gone forever.
Her life may have been over, but it wasn't lost in vain. I remained here, behind, searching, holding the dream of having a friend forever, someone to walk with, to share the world. Perhaps, someday, I would find someone who no longer burned as bright with survival as Erna. Perhaps I would find a friend, lost to life, but unworthy of death. One day, perhaps. It was a selfish dream, but the dream gave me comfort, and I began to hope.
I know it's not sexy, and it's not Edward, but I hope you enjoyed it enough to leave feedback. Thanks for reading!