AN: Thank you for all your kind words regarding the prologue. For those of you who were hoping future chapters would be longer, I hope you're not disappointed. This chapter will be about the usual size for me. I'll probably update every two to three weeks or so. It will be about 10 chapters in total.
Thank you again to my betas Alphie and Mila who helped me revise the ending at least three times.
"The power of doing anything with quickness is always prized much by the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance."
Awakenings Chapter 1
There are far worse things than manning the morgue on a Friday evening, although at that moment I'm not sure that any of them occurred to me. It was best this way really. I always liked to finish things, as much as you can finish things in a life that requires you to wander. After five years, Edward and I were to move along. If I had taken rounds upstairs, inevitably I would have found myself involved in a crucial delivery, or an appendectomy, something. Getting attached to any current cases wouldn't be wise. I needed to make a clean break. I mused over what this next chapter in my life would be like.
In a couple of days Edward and I would be moving out of the cottage we shared at the edge of town and head hundreds of miles away to Pittsford, New York. There would be a similar cottage there, although I suppose it could more adequately be termed a hunting lodge rather than a cottage. It sat on several acres of land along the Niagara River. It would be serviceable enough, fully furnished in a Spartan way. It was the easier to rent furnished accommodations than to explain why we had no beds, kitchen tables, silverware, etc. when moving in.
The hospital staff in Ashland all thought I was going to Columbia University to teach. No one would think much of it if they lost contact with us in a big city, nor were any of my Ashland colleges likely to visit New York City. Soon Edward and I would be all but forgotten. Instead we would be in Pittsford, a little town in upstate New York that no one had ever heard of, and where no one would ever look for us.
Pittsford, despite its unfortunate name, was a delightful, tiny town tucked into the Adirondack woods outside of Rochester, New York. Thanks to the town's high altitude and proximity to Lake Ontario, cloudy conditions generally prevailed. In addition, thick forest provided lots of natural shade and an abundance of deer, bear, and other wildlife.
I had managed to secure myself a position at Genesee General Hospital on the outskirts of Rochester. Even though it was a small hospital, it was unusually up-to-date since it was so close to both Cornell University and the Rochester Institute of Technology. Since I'd have the night shift, there would be plenty of time to investigate and study up on the latest techniques. Any dayshifts I could easily handle by arriving early and staying indoors. Due to the cold climate, small windows were the norm. So, maneuvering around incoming sunlight while covered in a lab coat wouldn't be much of a struggle.
The move wouldn't just be good for me, but it would be better for Edward too. I had acquired Edward a position as a research assistant at Rochester Institute of Technology where they were working with herbs, molds, and fungi, such as the Penicillium fungus, which seemed to have medicinal properties. It was the type of work where he would arrive in a windowless lab before sunup and leave at twilight.
Recently Edward had been sullen and moody. He wasn't adjusting to his new life style as well as I had hoped. I was certain that he would be less gloomy once the move happened. He just needed a more mature setting and more responsibility. A change of scene would do the trick.
I couldn't bring myself to inflict high school on Edward a third time in a row. Ashland had at least had a proper high school. Edward had been challenged by a few classes not included at his former academy such as German and advanced physics. Pittsford, on the other hand, was still small enough that several grades were housed together in a modified one room school house. There would be nothing available that Edward had not already mastered. Edward might be able to pass for a boy as young as 14, but the reality was that he was a man of twenty.
I grumbled to myself as my mouth screwed up into what I was sure was a wry smile. In chronology only was Edward twenty. Maturity was another matter entirely. As the only son of wealthy parents I suspected that Edward had not been told, "no" often. Although they had managed to give him the best education that money could buy, and shower him with attention, they had taught him little about considering someone other than himself. Adapting to circumstances that were not of his choosing and making compromises were not Edward's fortes. He never meant to be deliberately unkind, but he had to learn to check his temper, especially when things did not go his way. So the lab job would be just perfect for him. It would challenge his intellect, provide him with structure, keep him busy during the day, and give him the opportunity to do something different. What more could he want?
Anyway, enough of daydreaming, I thought. I had to get back to the work at hand - as mundane as it was. I was just about to start processing the paperwork for a Jane Doe who had arrived at the beginning of my shift. Not having to breathe, I could delay such things more than the regular staff could. Until now, she had just lain there under a sheet undocumented. She had been found by the railroad tracks, likely pushed, jumped, or fallen from a passing freight train.
As I moved the sheet and looked down on the girl on the slab, I signed to myself. What a waste of a life. The girl couldn't have been much older than twenty-five. From the looks of her attire she was poor and desperate. The polite slang at the time to describe such a girl was "doorway debutante". I wondered who she had been and what had happened to her that she had fallen into such a dark life. I knew no one would claim the body even if they knew her. The stigma to the family would be too great. She would end up in Potter's Field, forgotten in an unmarked grave.
A screech of brakes suddenly caught my attention. I stiffened hoping there wouldn't be an impact. I was wrong. A dull thud followed by rough language and the slamming of doors reached my ears. Moments later, I wasn't surprised to see Todd Platner miss the counter with his check-in clipboard and teeter into the morgue. He was three sheets to the wind, again.
Since Ashland didn't exactly have a high death rate, it wasn't as if the mortuary truck driver was frequently out on the road. Most of the time he was sleeping off a bender in the truck as it was parked in the loading bay. He usually drove hung over, not intoxicated.
Another man might have worried about job security, not Todd. He had married the mayor's sister. By all accounts, before the war Todd was an average happy-go-lucky guy. Since the war he was still happy, only copious amounts of alcohol kept him that way. Todd got by on the meager salary, and his wife could save face. The entire town pretended that Todd was plagued by "headaches", which prevented him from holding a better job. This wasn't entirely untrue as he had headaches with great frequency. Only they happened after he sobered up, not when he was falling down drunk, like now. Clearly now he was feeling no pain.
"Heya Doc!" I caught Todd by the shoulders as he swayed toward me. He barely seemed to notice that his log sheets had fallen to the hard floor with a loud bang.
"Todd, how many times do I have to tell you that it isn't safe for you to be operating a motor car while…while…while you aren't feeling well." I regretted having to use the euphemism, but the politics of dealing with the town drunkard, who was also the brother-in-law of the mayor, required it.
Todd listed seriously to the right and would have fallen over if it hadn't been for me. For a second, I considered letting him fall, maybe it would teach him a lesson. "Doncha worry 'bout me, Doc. I'm fine-"
"A nasty lump on your forehead would seem to dispute that, Todd."
Todd swiped at his forehead, missing each time. I had seen an Abbot and Costello picture recently where the actors had more coordination in their pratfalls than Todd was currently displaying.
"Todd, I heard the truck hit the loading dock, and you have a rather large goose egg forming on your forehead. I really think it would be best if you went upstairs and had Dr. Kievit look you over."
"Doc, you're so good to me. You know how it is…guy's got to forget who's got troubles…"
"Come on now, Todd." I was ever so gently, but firmly aiming Todd toward the staircase. "I'll see to the truck. I could use it to carry some of my personal belongings home, and then I'll park it in its rightful spot. For all anyone need know, it could have been hit whilst it was parked."
"Thanks, Doc!" Todd called over his shoulder as he rebounded off the walls as he climbed the stairs, "I knew howd you'd 'nderstand."
Todd was three quarters of the way up the stairs when I heard him stop and call back down, "Almost forgot. Truck's not empty. You don' wanna get your stuff all mussed."
I rolled my eyes. Of course, there would be a body in the truck. Leave it to Todd to omit the finer details to get him out of work. I scooped up the clipboard that was on the floor and glanced over the paperwork. Esme Evenson. Age 26. Teacher. Apparent suicide. Several witnesses watched her jump from a cliff in Brookside Park. Landed on rocks thirty feet below. Identified by neighbor who happened to be in park. Noted that she had been despondent since death of infant son.
So much for my uneventful night in the morgue, now I had two bodies to check in. The only difference was that someone would surely claim Esme Evenson's. Given that she had jumped off a cliff, however, it was unlikely that an open coffin would be an option. I grabbed a gurney and meandered out to the truck, it wasn't as if time was of the essence.
As soon as I opened the doors of the truck, it hit me. In hospitals, and especially in morgues, people talk about there being a lingering odor of death. For me it was always the opposite. Although I had long ago learned to master my thirst, the first thing I detected was always the scent of life. Right now there was a faint, yet unmistakable aroma emanating from the back of the morgue truck letting me know that a horrid mistake had been made!
Instinctively, I lifted the presumed lifeless body of Esme Evenson and rushed her into the morgue. From the blood caked all over her body, the concave shape of her ribcage, and the impossible angle of her legs, I doubted there was anything I could do. With injuries this severe no wonder people had assumed she was dead. I was stunned that she was still clinging feebly to life after what had to be a bumpy ride in the morgue truck. Only someone like me could have told the difference. Regardless of her condition, or how that condition came about, no one deserved to die alone in the back of a morgue truck. Even if her death were inevitable, she deserved to die with some dignity.
She didn't utter a sound as I placed her on a vacant table. I held her hand, feeling the last bit of life slowly draining from her. Her heart had slowed to almost imperceptible beats. Shallow breaths were coming at barely a minute apart. No wonder the rescuers hadn't realized that she was still alive, and even if they had, what could they have done? Though the entire left side of her face was marred and bruised, caramel colored hair and ivory skin let me know she had once been quite pretty. How completely tragic for one so young to lose hope. I pushed her matted hair back from the rest of her face and couldn't believe what, or rather whom I saw.
It had been ten years, the face was more mature, but Esme Platt, as had known her, lay dying before me. How could this be? The bright, shy, yet vivacious teenager that I had known in Columbus had lost hope so badly that she had tried to kill herself. Where was the girl with ambition who wanted to be a painter and live in Paris? Where were her doting, to the point of suffocating, parents? Her name on the chart was Evenson, where was her husband? Was there no one who cared for her? How was any of this possible? There were too many unfathomable questions and no one able to answer them.
Questions that continued to roar in my head were soon interrupted by a single thought: what a waste, what a complete and utter waste. The next thing I knew, my thoughts turned into action. I hadn't planned a thing, but with immediate clarity I rapidly made a series of decisions. There was no time to think everything through properly. Although I rarely did so, I acted on raw instinct. With lightning speed I took actions that would forever have a lasting impact on my life, and by default, Edward's.
The Jane Doe's paperwork had never been done. She was about the same age and build as Esme. They had similar injuries. If I didn't log her in, no one would ever know that she existed. I could easily substitute one body for the other and no one would be the wiser. The only person, besides me, who knew how many bodies had been brought to the morgue was Todd. Todd had trouble remembering where he lived most days. He was unlikely to notice anything beyond the rim of his flask. Even if he suddenly found sobriety, no one would ever believe him if he accused me of losing a body of a Jane Doe. Ashland authorities would have a substitute body to bury for Esme Evenson. The unlogged Jane Doe would now, in turn, have a decent burial. Injuries this severe would dictate a closed casket. No questions would be asked; the switch would remain undetected. With a quick stroke of my pen, I altered the records. Jane Doe became Esme Evenson.
Next, I grabbed a bottle of chloroform and several cotton gauze pads from the supply cabinet. Fortunately, surplus supplies were stored in the basement. If I was going to do this I couldn't risk her awakening. I reassured myself that she wouldn't be in agony, the chloroform would stop that.
Lastly, I again lifted Esme into my arms and carried her back to the truck. There was no turning back. I had learned a little from changing Edward. I could be more exact, spare her some of the pain. She had lost so much blood, perhaps it wouldn't be three days. I lied to myself, surely with one so on the brink it might be a matter of hours.
I would take her to the cottage. The change could transpire there. Except, I'd have to begin the process here; she'd never be able to endure the ride to the cottage. I laid her in the back of the truck, applied the chloroform, and closed the doors behind us.
I uttered a stifled scream of frustration. This change had to happen more rapidly. I couldn't afford for the venom to work its way through her body slowly with one bite. She'd certainly be dead before the venom fully took its paradoxical effect: taking life as it healed and gave life. It was infuriatingly ironic. Ten minutes ago I was contemplating how I had all the time in the world. Now, time was my enemy.
I could feel my hands shaking. I had only done this once before with one bite. It had been impossibly difficult to resist the exquisite temptation back then to drink. How do you deny your body what it instinctively wants to do? It's like telling a drowning man to wait, that he mustn't breathe. It's one thing to change a person when you have never tasted human blood. It is another thing entirely when you know what lies ahead. This time I knew. Blissful ignorance was long gone.
When I changed Edward, I had lied to myself. Staying in control would be effortless. How could I crave something I'd never had? Something that repulsed me in my soul? How wrong I had been. One bite and I had had to flee the room to avoid succumbing to what I was.
I felt every muscle in my body tighten as a shuddering breath came from Esme. Could I really do this? Could I manage to stay in control while inflicting multiple bites? If I couldn't resist the urge to fully satiate my thirst, I was sure of one thing. I'd not only destroy her, but me as well. I'd never be able to live with myself if I took a human life.
I couldn't stall any longer. I closed my eyes, held my breath, and said a silent prayer. Venom flooded my mouth as I began, for the second time in my life, the unthinkable.