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This story has been nominated for the Indie Twific Awards (theindietwificawards-dot-com) for "Best Canon." Voting continues through July 12th 2009.
Notes: Although there's quite a lot of religious imagery in this piece, it reflects the era and characters. Please remember that Carlisle is the son of an Anglican priest and both men lived in a world where Biblical analogy was still very present and vivid. Other Canon and Historical Notes at the end.
Music unfurled wings and soared.
The unseen organist had pulled out the stops so the big pipes were on -- 16- and 32-foot -- and they shook the very rafters, made the floors vibrate to the complicated cadence of Bach. Carlisle heard it even before he pulled open the red church doors, then a sheer wall of sound hit him, took him back hundreds of years.
Not that his father's parish had been wealthy enough to own a pipe organ, or even a harpsichord, but he'd heard them on occasion when his father had taken him to worship in cathedrals. In the many years since, he'd made a point of attending concerts to hear again the majesty of the pipes.
It might have seemed obscene that he should be hearing them now in a house of God that had become a house of plague -- but it didn't.
He'd just arrived from his night stint at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station north of Chicago. There, the victims were being laid on cots outside by day, hoping fresh air would help. Carlisle wasn't sure it would, but at least it kept down the stench of death and diseased bodies. In any case, as caring for the soldiers involved moving from small tent to small tent in some areas, Carlisle had to work after dark. By day, he worked at an overflow emergency hospital that had appropriated St. James's Episcopal Cathedral in town. No one was attending services anyway these days, the fear of contagion too high. Ironic perhaps -- considering -- but Carlisle felt comfortable working in the multi-hued shadow of stained glass and the cross raised above them, a reminder of hope and the world awaiting all but him.
And now, there was music too.
He made his way over to the current head nurse, who was talking to a supply man. "What do you mean we're out of sheets?" she asked.
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but that's the plain truth. There's not a sheet left in Chicago." Then he shook his head and plugged his ears as a particularly powerful set of chords rocked the building. "Who is that damn idiot anyway? Coming here to practice . . . doesn't he know people are dying?"
"You mind your tongue, Gifford. That 'damn idiot' arrived with his parents earlier this morning and I'll be surprised if the father sees the sun set. The mother's not in a bad way, and the boy's still able to sit up, obviously. He asked if he could play for his father, although I'm sure the poor soul doesn't know it, delirious as he is. But if it eases the boy's heart, let him play. The other patients seem to like it too."
"Well, he could tone it down a notch," the supply man rumbled as he stalked off.
The head nurse turned then to Carlisle. "I'm so glad you came back, and look healthy." She took his hands in her sturdy ones. Both of them were gloved. "Did you get some rest?"
"Yes, I did, thank you. Where do you need me to begin today?" These people didn't know he moonlighted -- literally -- in another hospital. Times were too desperate for any clinic to turn down a willing pair of trained hands. Too many doctors had died, and others simply weren't coming to work. It would be easy, from his lofty perch of immortality, for Carlisle to condemn them as cowards, but it seemed hypocritical.
She pointed to the far aisle on the sanctuary left. "We've laid the newest patients over there on pallets; they need assessing. A few are already showing cyanosis, I'm afraid. They'll have to be moved to the main hospital."
Carlisle nodded. When cyanosis hit -- the blackening of skin due to lack of oxygen in the blood -- the end usually wasn't far behind. "Are we really out of sheets?"
She sighed. "I'm afraid so. We're boiling the last lot out back, but after that, we've no more."
Carlisle nodded. Desperate times had come indeed when a dead man couldn't even be spared a winding sheet to wrap his corpse. The city had run out of caskets more than a week ago, and the dead were being laid in pine boxes, or stacked in warehouses. He'd heard that grave diggers were refusing to go near them, fearful of catching the disease themselves.
He made his way through the newest admissions, evaluating who could stay at the cathedral and who needed to be moved to the hospital with its better facilities -- and morgue. Carlisle knew the staff were doing their best to avoid having people die in a sanctuary. It wasn't entirely logical, but old notions of sacred space still held. So the sickest patients were transferred to the hospital as soon as beds there opened up.
Truth was, most people stayed home to fight off infection with cathartics and vapor rubs and epsom salts until they grew too ill. Thus he saw the worst, a fair portion of whom wouldn't recover. The chest-low coughs and moans of those suffering severe body aches hurt his heart more than his ears, but the music rolled over them all, soothing. Despite the volume, the precision of the fugue calmed the mind even if the organist sometimes stumbled in his pedalwork or missed a note. He didn't let that stop him but played on doggedly as if his life depended on it, or at least the ease of his father's passing.
Carlisle finally reached the organist's family near the end of the aisle. He'd been asking who they were as he went, but patients just shook their heads or pointed further down the row. The boy's mother heard him asking the woman beside her. "That's my Edward," she said, voice cracked from coughing but strong. "That's my Edward playing."
Looking over at her, he nodded and finished with the first woman before moving on to her. "He plays quite well. How old is he?"
"Seventeen." Her eyes -- a startling pale green like new grass -- were fever bright, but otherwise, she appeared in better shape than most. "He's to go to the Institute for Musical Art in New York. Well, that's what I want for him. He wants to go to war, and his father wants him to enter law school, learn something practical." She gestured to the man on the pallet beside hers. Unconscious and with skin darkening already, he looked dead, but Carlisle could hear the labored sound of a heartbeat. "But a gift like Edward's," the mother went on, "it shouldn't be wasted on law, or the war. I know that sounds unpatriotic, but we bought our bonds like good citizens. I'll give them my money; I won't give them my only son, although with the draft, I don't suppose there's much choice."
He patted her hand. "When God blesses someone thusly, to pursue anything else is to sacrifice the gift." Carlisle hoped it wasn't moot in this boy's case.
"Just so," the mother said, and closed her eyes. "I'd tell him he should rest, but he can't bear to see his father like that. Maybe another half hour. Then someone should make him lie down"
"I'll be sure someone fetches him."
Yet it was less than half an hour before the organ stopped abruptly, and not at a song's end. Carlisle had just finished with a patient, so he dashed up the stairs to the balcony above where the organ console was housed. It was sizable with three manuals and a full pedalboard, but the rank-on-rank of pipes alone would have told Carlisle that.
The boy was hunched on the bench, holding his middle and shaking in the grip of severe chills. That wasn't good. Hurrying over, Carlisle lifted him from the bench onto the floor before he fell. "It's time for a break," he told him, smiling. "You're Edward, right?" The boy nodded. He had his mother's strange green eyes. They looked even brighter in his flushed face, and his reddish hair was soaked from sweat. The flush also made the spots that dotted his chin and nose and forehead stand out more plainly, but he had good, regular features -- kind features -- and would be a handsome boy when he outgrew his adolescent acne. "Thank you for the concert," Carlisle continued, "but even the most devoted musician must rest when sick."
"It's for my father," Edward whispered through fever-cracked lips. "I can't save him. It's all I can do for him. Is he still alive?" Then he shook his head. "Never mind. There must be hundreds of people down there. You wouldn't know him."
"He's still alive," Carlisle replied while he carefully checked the boy over. "In fact, I spoke with your mother not long ago. She's very proud of you, you know -- told me she wants you to go to the Institute for Musical Art in New York."
The boy smiled slightly. "I'm going to war is where I'm going. As soon as I turn eighteen."
Neither of them brought up the fact he wouldn't be going anywhere if he didn't lick this bronchopneumonia. At least his skin was still clear of cyanosis and his speech wasn't bubbling from fluid in his lungs. He and his mother might have a chance if he didn't wear himself out on his music. "Will you let me carry you downstairs? You really need to rest now if you want to put on a soldier's uniform later."
"All right," Edward whispered. "I'm making too many mistakes anyway. But I weigh too much for you to carry me. I can walk still."
"Nonsense," Carlisle said. "You're a tall lad, but not that heavy."
Lifting him carefully and pretending to stagger, Carlisle made his way down the stairs with him. Seeing them emerge at the bottom, the head nurse hurried over. "Oh, that poor boy." She ran a gloved hand over his hair.
He smiled at her; it was uncommonly sweet. "I'll be fine," he said, all bravado.
"Let's make room for him over here next to his mother," the nurse said. "I just got a new pallet laid out, and there may be more beds in the hospital by tomorrow. We've already sent over your father," she added, to Edward.
"Can't we go with him?" Edward asked, voice plaintive as Carlisle followed the nurse with his burden of lanky boy.
"I'm afraid not, honey. Not yet. There's just not room, and we're trying to save what room there is for the patients who need it most." She threw a smile over her shoulder as she arranged the sheets -- probably some from the last batch of boiling. "It's actually a good sign for you and your mother that you can stay here."
"I wanted to be with him," Edward said as Carlisle laid him down. Seeing them bringing him, his mother had sat up on her own pallet, and now leaned over him, her face pinched with worry.
"I shouldn't have let you go and play."
He gave her a grin that, if he didn't look so ill, might have passed for cocky. "I'll be fine, Mom. You'll see. And Father likes Bach." She nodded, fingers tracing his face as she tried to keep from crying. It was painfully tender, and Carlisle found himself wishing he could remember his own mother's face, centuries gone. Yet he had other patients, and went to attend to them.
He saw mother and son once more before he left for the day. Both appeared unchanged. If the boy now ailed worse than she did, neither showed signs of the dreaded pneumonia that carried off the unlucky, so Carlisle departed for his night shift at the Naval Training Station. He made the trip on foot, as he could run faster than any automobile and some locomotives.
As he worked among the soldiers, his mind drifted back to young Edward, who idealistically wanted to join them, and to his mother, who feared it. He thought again about what he'd said -- that when God had blessed one so, it was wrong to throw that aside, a mockery. Carlisle had seen too much of war to be much impressed by this one. To his mind, the only thing great about the Great War was the number of dead. He'd heard horror stories of the trenches, and of choking strangulation from mustard gas. But boys thought themselves indestructible -- just as he had once when he'd foolishly tried to run down a coven of hungry vampires. Now he was indestructible but would give almost anything to be mortal and vulnerable once again.
Almost anything. On days like today, he was glad of his indestructibility -- a doctor who never had to sleep or eat or rest, who could never die from human disease . . . indestructibility was exactly what they needed during this epidemic.
But he still had to pretend, so he doffed his protective clothing at night's end and prepared to return to Chicago to resume his indoor duties at the Episcopal cathedral. With the distance between station and city, it wasn't likely anyone would discover his double identity. Even if word of a "Dr. Cullen" reached one place from the other, they'd assume there were two of them.
The church was quieter than usual that morning as he entered and received a brief report from the head nurse -- a different woman today. "Margaret fell ill," she said sadly.
"Oh, no," Carlisle said.
"Yes, we're hoping, but . . . " She didn't finish. Everyone was hoping.
"I don't suppose the Masen family is still here, are they? A mother and son?"
"The organist?" she asked. She must have been around yesterday.
"They're still here, but word came from the hospital that the father died overnight. I don't think they're surprised, but the boy took it hard."
Carlisle nodded. "I gather he and his father were close." After all, sick as he was, Edward had hauled himself into the balcony yesterday to play for a man likely too far gone to know -- just in case he could hear.
Carlisle didn't get to the Masens immediately. He had a number of patients, but when he did, he found the mother bent over her son's sickbed, the boy curled up on his side, shaking under the blankets. "Elizabeth," Carlisle said. "You need to lie down too."
She shook her head, her face wan but determined. "I can't lose them both."
Carlisle laid a gloved hand on her shoulder and gripped it. "I'll do my best to be sure you don't."
As it turned out, Edward's shaking stemmed only half from fever. The other half came from dry, heaving sobs that -- young man as he was -- he struggled to conceal. "Real men weep," Carlisle told him softly. "It's what separates us from the animals."
Did that make him less than a man himself then because he no longer had tears? Carlisle hoped not.
"So many people have died," the boy said without turning his face. It remained buried in the pillow. "He was just one more. But to me, it feels as if the whole sky has fallen in."
"Numbers don't make loss less," Carlisle replied. "Each person who dies is someone's father or mother, son or daughter, brother or sister."
Finally Edward looked up. With eyes red from weeping, his irises appeared an even paler green. Irish eyes. Carlisle wondered if the Masens were Catholic, and tamped down old resentments. It had been a long time since Bloody Mary and Elizabeth and those wars. Even his father had recalled only the end of Elizabeth's reign, and Carlisle had never feared for his life for being a Protestant. Nonetheless, "Roman Catholic" stirred a knee-jerk reaction in him, and he found himself blurting out, "Are you Catholic? I didn't think to ask. We have a priest who comes 'round at least every third day for the sacraments; I could be certain you're on his list."
"No, we're Methodists," Elizabeth Masen replied. "But thank you."
Methodist. Much better. Carlisle didn't tell her that he'd had opportunity to hear John Wesley preach once -- nor did he mention that John Wesley had remained an Anglican until he died, but it soothed his own Anglican pride.
"You should go," Edward said softly. "There are people in worse shape than us. And take one of my blankets."
"Edward -- "
"Mom, I have two. Some patients don't have even one. That's not fair." He shifted on his pallet, pulling off the top blanket and pushing it at Carlisle. "It's infected, of course, but we're all infected here, so I don't suppose it really matters, does it?"
"No, it doesn't," Carlisle agreed, accepting the offering. "Thank you," he said. "I'll see you both later."
"Okay," Edward said and tried to smile, but it was broken by grief.
Rising, Carlisle left them for the next patient. He couldn't explain his growing attachment to these two people in a sea of the miserable, yet there was something about them -- about Edward in particular, if Carlisle were honest. Elizabeth Masen was admirable, to be sure, and he suspected that under normal circumstances, she'd be a formidable woman, but most mothers wanted to protect their sons, and most mothers wanted to foster their children's talents. Edward, however . . . he'd played for his dying father, then wept over his loss at an age when most boys were flexing their adolescent independence. Perhaps his deep grief owed to power struggles at home -- shame could be a great motivator -- but he hadn't spoken as if that were so. And now, he was giving away his own blanket to somebody else. Yes, he'd had two (and how had he come to have two in the first place when the clinic was running out of even sheets?) -- but no one had asked him for the generosity. It had sprung up from a willing soul. Carlisle had seen enough of human nature to know that sickness often brought out a person's true colors.
The cathedral maintained the odd quiet all morning, the moans of the sick muted. Mid-October sun reached through stained-glass windows, caressing those within with soft fingers of myriad colors. Some patients no longer had blankets at all, but Carlisle was careful where he bestowed the extra he held. Perhaps he should have given it to the first person he came across in need, but he found a young girl who -- while clearly ill -- looked as if she might recover. She got Edward's extra blanket. It had been hard to turn away from other reaching hands, but Carlisle had been forced to make such choices before in his long life, decide who might live and who would die no matter what, and spend his time where it would help most. It had become like that here of late, and if he'd been entirely serious when he'd reminded Edward that each death was no less important because it was one of hundreds, nonetheless, he had to make choices. He was only one man with two hands and limited time, however indestructible he might be.
He saw the Masens twice more that day, even found an excuse to bring them broth and sat with them briefly as they tried to eat.
The boy was failing. Carlisle could see it but didn't want yet to admit it. He clung to the fact there was no cyanosis, although his sensitive hearing told him fluid was slowly filling Edward's lungs. He had pneumonia. Carlisle kept that knowledge off his face when he spoke to Elizabeth.
Before he left for the evening, however, she pulled him aside. She should have been lying down, but he had trouble keeping her prone. "He's getting worse, isn't he?" she asked, eyes serious. "The nurse came by earlier and said they're planning to move him to the real hospital if they can find a bed, just like his father. I have to go with him, Dr. Cullen. Please. Ed Senior -- I could let them take him. But Edward needs me. I can't let them take Edward and not me too."
"I'll see what I can do," Carlisle promised. On the way out, he stopped by the makeshift nurses' station, checking the list of patients to be sent over to the hospital with its real beds and better facilities. Edward's name was near the top. Glancing around to be sure nobody was watching, Carlisle added his mother's too. He shouldn't play favorites like this, but couldn't bear the idea of that special boy all alone in the hospital. Edward Senior had been unconscious, but the boy was awake and aware, and young enough to be afraid. Carlisle had seen the fear earlier in his eyes.
He felt reluctant to leave that night, but if Edward were worsening, he wasn't near death yet -- might never reach it, if God were kind. Looking up at the cross above the altar before walking out the doors, Carlisle muttered a soft prayer. "Watch over the boy you touched, Father. You gave him a gift. Don't let death steal him from the world before he can give it back." If the phrasing sounded a bit presumptuous when aimed at the Creator, Carlisle hoped he'd be forgiven. Besides, there were worse stains on his soul than hubris.
By the time he returned the next morning, both the Masens were gone, transferred to the main hospital instead of the emergency one. Carlisle tried to concentrate on his patients and not worry about Edward Masen or his mother. Unfortunately, he couldn't use the lunch hour he didn't need in order to go and check on them, as the sun was out again that day. Instead, he sat in a pew and bent his head, hands folded in his lap. "Dear Father in Heaven," he whispered almost inaudibly, "I know that out of so many who are suffering, one boy is just one boy, but You promised Your disciples that not a single sparrow falls to the earth but that You know. So please watch over him while I cannot. People need me here. Amen."
Rising from his seat, he returned to work in the cathedral aisles until twilight, then left as he always did. But before running to his shift at the naval station, he dropped by the hospital where he'd worked until the bronchopneumonia had grown so terrible that makeshift emergency hospitals had been established elsewhere to take care of those less severely ill. The mood of the main hospital staff was dark. Here, they saw death daily and in frightening numbers. "We sent a hundred and six to the morgue yesterday," one of the admissions nurses told him. "And the day before that, it was a hundred and eleven. I don't know when it's going to end." She looked as much depressed as tired and Carlisle wished he could give her hope, but he had no better idea that she did. Even the cholera epidemic half a century before hadn't been as bad as this, and if he thought new admissions might have begun to taper off, these things went in waves. The numbers might be back up again next week.
"Actually, I'm looking for a mother and son who were brought over from the cathedral hospital some time last night -- Elizabeth and Edward Masen. The father was admitted the day before but died soon after. I've been following their cases."
The nurse didn't question his interest but went to check the clipboards, returning to announce, "They're on Ward E, third floor."
The use of the plural gave him hope; it meant both were still alive.
His hope died upon entering the ward. The boy looked awful, pneumonia having caught hold between now and the day before so that his breathing was labored, if his skin remained blessedly free of the dreaded cyanosis. He was propped up, too, although where they'd found an extra pillow Carlisle didn't know . . . until he realized Elizabeth Masen's bed no longer had one. The extra blanket covering him was hers too, and as usual, she was bent over his bed, not in hers. "You really must lie down," Carlisle said to her by way of greeting.
In reply, he was nearly strangled by her desperate hug. "Oh, doctor, I'm so glad to see you. I know you must have just left work and should go home, I know there's not much you can do that's not already being done, but I'm so glad to see you anyway." The words poured out of her against his chest, and, feeling awkward, he patted her back before backing up. He avoided touching people much. They noticed he was cold, and his skin not soft. A hand clasp was the most he usually dared, but she was too distraught to register it, or chalked up his coolness to her own fevered state. She was still ill, but didn't seem terribly worse. She'd probably live. But how terrible to bury both husband and son, and he felt a rush of irrational anger at God. In his long life, Carlisle had grown used to divine indifference, even come to understand it after a fashion. So why had he thought Edward Masen more special than the 106 who'd died yesterday, and the likely 100-and-something who'd die today? He didn't know.
"Let me look at him, Elizabeth. And please, please -- lie down."
She did as he asked while he bent over Edward, putting in the earpieces of his stethoscope although he didn't need them. He could hear the boy's heart fine as it was, and it sounded strong despite everything. He didn't, however, like the gurgle of fluid in the lungs. Yet if Edward could just hold on through this ancillary infection, he had a chance. He was young and in good shape. Unfortunately, bronchopneumonia was killing everyone -- the old, the children, and even young adults at the height of their health.
Edward himself appeared only half-conscious, but conscious enough to moan when Carlisle touched him. "I'm sorry," Carlisle murmured. "The aches are bad, are they?"
"Yes. I'm sorry. I know you have to move me to check me." His voice sounded breathy and hoarse. He was trying to wake up a little.
"There's nothing to apologize for, Edward. I wish I could do this without it hurting."
"I wish she'd stay in bed."
"She's worried about you."
"I know." He swallowed, then asked, "I'm not going to make it, am I?"
And what did Carlisle say to that? The way the boy had asked said he wanted the truth -- needed the truth -- not platitudes, and if he still seemed a boy to Carlisle, he was almost a man. One year older and he'd already be overseas facing death in the form of bullets or poison gas, not this infection. So Carlisle met the pale-grass eyes and said, "I don't know. And that's the honest truth. Your heart is strong, and you've not entered the final stages -- you're still conscious, and not yet suffering diarrhea -- but pneumonia's set in. If you can hang on, you have a chance." He tried to smile. "I'm not making out a death certificate for you yet, lad."
Edward gave a little nod. "Thank you. For telling me straight. I'm worried about my mother. Without father, she needs someone. I'm going to fight, sir. I'm not going to leave her alone."
Carlisle nodded. "Good for you. A will to live is as important as any medicine I can give you, Edward. And know . . . well, know you're in my prayers."
"Thank you, again." He fell silent and Carlisle thought it time to leave; the boy needed rest more than anything. But Edward spoke up a final time. "May I ask a question?" Carlisle nodded. "Sometimes it sounds like you have an accent. Are you from America?"
What an odd thing to inquire about, at least right now. Carlisle had expected almost anything but a question about himself. "I was born in England," he said, "but came here . . . a long time ago."
Edward's lips curled just a little. "I thought so. You call me 'lad.' I've never had anyone call me 'lad.'"
"Would you rather I didn't?"
"Oh, no, sir. I . . . I rather like it."
"All right then -- lad. I'll see you tomorrow morning, all right?"
Carlisle stopped by the mother's bed on the way out. "Is he going to make it?" Elizabeth asked in a whisper.
"I don't know," he said, wanting to be honest here, too. "He could."
"That's the truth?"
"Yes, that's the truth. He's bad, but he could yet recover. You need to stay in bed. Worrying about you is sapping his strength." That might be a more effective deterrent than anything else.
"I'll . . . try," she half-promised.
"You do that." And he left them.
His night at the navel station passed restlessly, and when he nearly crushed a patient's wrist because he was too distracted, he knew he shouldn't return here. He'd let himself become too attached to the Masens; it was affecting his work away from them. He knew better. He knew he should remain impersonal -- compassionate, yes, but not subjectively involved. Yet Edward had somehow wormed his way under Carlisle's shields, and Carlisle still couldn't say why. He hadn't talked to the boy much, had known him only a few days. Perhaps it was Edward's obvious love for his parents, and the fact he seemed not just to be a good son but a good person, thinking of others before himself. Yet at the root of it, Carlisle suspected it had more to do with Edward's gift for music. In such a dark and ugly world, someone so touched by the hand of God shouldn't die -- not from this terrible pandemic, and not from war, either. Carlisle feared that even if Edward survived the pneumonia, he'd just survive to be sent to the Western front and die there.
He left the navel station in the dark hours before dawn, feeling guilty for deserting but knowing he'd become a liability. He returned to Chicago and went immediately to the PHS hospital to check on Edward. It wasn't even Elizabeth he worried about now but her son. He'd stopped kidding himself. Unfortunately, Edward had worsened in the night. His eyes were bloodshot, his chart reported bloody diarrhea, and he'd slipped into delirium as pneumonia took hold. Carlisle wanted to bellow in fury. "You promised," he hissed to the unconscious boy. "You promised you'd fight, Edward. So fight, damn you!"
But it was himself he was angry at. He knew it absurd to think his presence would have made any difference, yet felt as if he'd let the boy down. He was a doctor; he should save lives.
At least Elizabeth Masen was sleeping. She looked worn out, if still healthy. It might be hours before she woke and saw how Edward had deteriorated overnight. Carlisle went in search of camphor oil for the boy, even if he knew it practically useless at this point.
He stayed at the hospital as long as he dared, lending a hand where he could and checking on Edward. But he had no chance to speak to Elizabeth before time to leave. The sun would rise soon, and he should get to the cathedral. He almost stayed, but he'd given up the naval station; he should keep one duty, and there was nothing he could do for Edward that wasn't already being done. He knew this. Edward would probably survive the day; Carlisle could return that evening. He shouldn't have let himself care this much -- humans were so fragile -- but he had.
The day passed far too slowly. At his age, Carlisle was used to days and weeks and months and even years speeding by, but that day, he checked his pocket watch constantly and eyed the light streaming through stained glass windows. Despite the beauty of the fractured images, he'd never so wanted twilight to arrive. Yet when the time finally did come, he feared to leave. Somewhere between morning and evening he'd stopped pretending. Edward Masen was dying. And with this disease so unpredictable, it could have carried him off sooner than Carlisle expected, and Carlisle felt compelled to hold the boy's hand at the end, close his eyes and declare him gone.
As he had once before, Carlisle sat in a pew, head bowed and hands clasped, praying for a miracle. Lifting his eyes finally, they fell on one of the church windows, a beautiful depiction of the risen Christ, triumphant, the light of Easter Dawn behind him. Carlisle had to remind himself that death, darkness and betrayal had come before that -- hours wracked by pain on a cross. Even Jesus had prayed, "Father, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me . . . " If the Lord's own son could experience fear in the face of death, was it so terrible that Carlisle feared for this good-hearted boy? Yet Edward's death wasn't required to redeem the world. The cup could pass from him.
In the end, Carlisle's prayer was a simple one "Father, if it be your will, save him. Amen."
Rising, he left the church. His last glance was of the balcony and organ console, and the great pipes that had first brought Edward to his notice. Outside on the horizon, the final rays of sun had turned the sky vermillion, plum and puce, like blood and bruises. Carlisle was out of patience, and dashed through the back streets and alleys, a blur on the edge of human senses.
It wasn't far to the hospital; he was there in under two minutes and slowed in the alley behind. It took him almost as long to get upstairs to Edward's ward at a human pace. What he found shocked him.
Edward still lived -- not much changed in fact from the morning, his only new symptom the mahogany spots on cheeks and chin that foretold the final stages. Cyanosis -- the dying of the skin due to failing lungs. As Carlisle had feared, Edward would be lucky to see the sun rise a final time.
But that wasn't the shock. The shock was the state of Elizabeth Masen. In just the fourteen hours since Carlisle had left that morning, her health had failed entirely. Now she looked more ill than her son, her own cyanosis advanced past Edward's. "Oh, no," Carlisle whispered as he settled down at her bedside. "Oh, no -- Elizabeth, no."
To his surprise, her eyes opened and there was no delirium there. Her mind still functioned properly. "Dr. Cullen?"
"I'm here, Elizabeth." He took her hand in his, not bothering with gloves. She needed to feel human flesh, and he was in no danger. "I'm here."
"He's still alive."
Her smile wasn't amused. "I know. But he won't be for long, will he? No, don't lie. Our fight is over, and we lost."
Carlisle shook his head. "The Great Prize awaits you on the other side." He believed it. For a woman like Elizabeth and a boy like Edward, St. Peter's gate would stand wide open.
"As long as Ed -- Edward's father -- is there, I'm content. But Edward . . . he never had a chance to live."
"I'm sorry," Carlisle said. What else was there to say?
Abruptly, she gripped his hand in hers with a frightening strength. "'I'm sorry' isn't good enough, Dr. Cullen. You promised you'd do your best, but this isn't all you could do. I've been watching you, and you're different." She lifted their joined hands, showing that his weren't gloved. "You're not afraid like the others. But you don't need to be, do you? You have to save him!" The way she spoke was almost unnatural, such force coming from one so weak. Carlisle couldn't look away from her, from eyes so bloodshot that the light green irises nearly glowed.
"I'll do everything in my power," he assured her.
"Will you?" Her expression verged on mad. "You must -- you must do everything in your power. What others cannot do, that is what you must do for my Edward."
And the way she looked at him -- as if she could see right into his very soul -- frightened him. How could she possibly know what he could do? She said she'd been watching him, but she couldn't have guessed, not really. It was the fancy of a mother's final desperation; she had no real idea what she was asking -- or to what she would be condemning her son. A star as bright as Edward's should burn hot and golden like the sun -- not twinkle silver in the cool velvet sky, seen only at dawn and dusk.
Her head had turned so that her eyes fell on the bed beside hers, and she continued, unaware of the turmoil she'd stirred in Carlisle. "My son, look on your father," she whispered, then turned to pierce Carlisle with that stare. "Father, look on your son." She closed her eyes then, worn out from the final effort, and spoke no more.
Carlisle sat for long minutes after, her fever-hot hand gripped in his, skin to skin, hidden from the sight of nurses who (understandably) would object. He wanted to argue with her. He wanted to explain that she couldn't possibly mean what she thought she did. This wasn't life he could give Edward. It was merely existence. Lonely. Eternal. And hungry. Always, always hungry.
Rising finally, he went to sterilize his hands, then saw to a few patients wherever help was needed, but he couldn't stop thinking about Elizabeth's demand.
It was wrong even to contemplate it -- yet had he not in the past? Had he not pondered making a companion for himself, someone to understand him? Someone like him? It was a basic human need, to reproduce. And when it came down to it, he was as human as the next man. He, too, wanted a son. And such a son as Edward -- any man would be proud of the boy.
No, it was wrong. Simply wrong to condemn a soul to eternal extinction . . .
Yet he didn't believe that. He'd never believed that. He still felt God's touch at times. Sin was about will. Choice. Or so he'd always understood it. Adam and Eve had chosen to disobey. Carlisle hadn't been given a choice in becoming what he was. His choice now lay in how he lived the life he had. God was merciful, not unreasonable.
He returned to the bedside of the Masens as if pulled by a magnet. Elizabeth was unconscious; she'd never wake, he knew. Her son tossed and turned, gripped by delirium, his skin slowly darkening. He'd never wake, either. Yet even so, some light shone out of him, an inner beauty unmarred by sweat or dying skin, by the light beard stubble or the acne of teen years. Carlisle could see the man he might have become, the clean bones shaved pure by fever. It was a good face. A beautiful face, perhaps, but that mattered less. It was a good face. How could God abandon such a one as Edward to this terrible, profane, disgusting death, passing bloody shit and drowning in his own phlegm?
And finally -- finally -- Carlisle recognized the puzzle piece he'd been missing.
He'd been praying for two days that God might intervene and save Edward. But perhaps God already had . . . by sending him Carlisle. Wasn't that his own calling, his own vocation -- to save lives? In Carlisle's experience, God worked more often through the hands and feet and voices of his children. Even vampire children.
Leaning down, mouth to Edward's ear, he whispered, "I could save you. Do you want me to? Would you want me to if you knew what it really meant?"
No answer came, of course.
Rising, Carlisle moved to the bed of Elizabeth Masen, but sometime while he'd been pondering his choices, her soul had left her body and he'd missed it. He doubted she cared. She was with her husband now. Lifting the sheet to cover her face, he whispered, "If I save him my way, you won't see him again until the final trumpet at the end of time. Are you sure? This is a choice from which there's no return."
At that moment a nurse poked her head in the ward doorway. "No more sheets!" she said. "We've no more sheets. The dead will have to be stacked in the morgue without them."
It wasn't the sort of answer he'd been looking for, but it was an answer, wasn't it? After a fashion. He turned back to Edward's bed. "There are no winding sheets left," he said softly. "So you can't die. It's that simple. There's no sheet to cover you."
Pulling the sheet off the boy's bed, he dropped it on the floor, but left the one covering his mother. Then he wheeled both beds out and down the hallway towards the morgue. "Two more," he told the head nurse on duty. She glanced at the bodies, but didn't question him.
"We're out of sheets," she said. "We'll need the one back."
"I'll be certain to bring it," he said, lying through his teeth. He wouldn't be back.
Down in the morgue, he gently lifted the body of Elizabeth Masen to the top of a pile where it would be difficult for staff to steal the winding sheet from her. He tagged her toe, giving her name and her husband's, so their next-of-kin could bury them together. Then he picked up Edward's still-breathing body and sneaked it out the back, climbing up to the rooftops and racing over the city of Chicago in the dark, bearing the burden of his new son.
This boy would live.
Notes: I've expanded quite a lot on the tale Carlisle tells Bella in New Moon, taking a few liberties but trying to stick to most canon and historical facts. For instance, although the book implies Edward 'died' in September, given how the epidemic spread out from Kansas and hit Chicago, early or mid-October is more likely. He may first have fallen ill in late September. The Institute for Musical Art was the original name for Julliard; it wasn't renamed Julliard until after 1919. As for Edward's ability to play organ, while the piano and organ are different, it's not that unusual for someone to be able to play both; I studied organ for some years and later learned piano, as well.
On the Spanish flu, many doctors did not, at the time, think it influenza because it didn't act like the influenzas they knew. Bronchopneumonia was one of several names for it, and that's what Carlisle calls it here. Antibiotics aren't mentioned for treatment because they hadn't been invented yet. A "PHS" hospital means a "public health services" hospital. St. James Cathedral is the oldest Episcopal Church in Chicago, built in the mid-1800s, but I don't know that it was ever used as an emergency hospital during the pandemic. It is true that schools, churches and town meetings halls were pressed into such service, however.
The title references a line from the Gospel of Matthew where a voice from heaven declared Jesus of Nazareth "my son" at his baptism. Later Jewish-Syriac Christians viewed this as Jesus' adoption as the Son of God, that he was made so, not born so. An obscure bit of theological trivia, but reflective of Carlisle's choice to make Edward his, and of course intentionally ironic, given Edward's later fears about the loss of his soul as a vampire. Yes, John Wesley is considered to be the founder of Methodism, but himself remained an Anglican priest until he died.
Many thanks to Ridesandruns for a very fast edit. :-)