I could feel nothing, not in my head or heart or body. Though there was an undercurrent of grief within my heart and baby blue eyes dancing behind my eyelids, I couldn't focus on remembering why it was there. I had no idea where I was or what had happened, and I tried to move, to sit up, but there was nothing, no feeling, no movement. Nothing.
I finally managed to pry my eyelids open, and what I saw when I opened them filled me with confusion and made me wonder what had happened to me. Surely I must have been in heaven to be able to see his face again, the beautiful, flawless face of the man I'd fallen in love with when I was sixteen. Where had he come from?
Memories flashed through my mind in quick succession.
Charles. Thomas. The funeral. The wandering. The rocks. Oh, God. The cliffs.
Surely for an ending such as mine, for a life such as mine, this could not be heaven. I didn't deserve heaven. Yet, I couldn't imagine that I'd be anywhere else—with those eyes and that face. I had often envisioned what such a place would like, and this would surely be it. Everything about him encompassed goodness and filled me with calm. I remembered him so clearly...
"You'll need to be more careful when climbing trees, Miss Pratt," Dr. Cullen said with a rueful smile as his cold hands worked on setting my leg and casting it.
His eyes were bewitching and his smile completely breathtaking. All of the girls in town fawned over him, struggled to get his attention. I'd never been one for flirting, but I would have been lying had I said I didn't want his attention as well. He was beautiful, kind and intelligent. He was every girl's dream.
I blushed at his words in spite of myself, looking down at my hands as my heartbeat increased.
"I will, Dr. Cullen."
He smiled warmly, patting my arm.
"You're all set. My nurse, Mrs. Blake, will give you a set of crutches, and I will need to see you in six weeks to remove the cast. Until then, no reckless tree climbing or acrobatics, alright?"
He winked, and my stomach fluttered madly.
I nodded with a shy smile, and he left the room.
It was him. He was here with me now. Surely he must be an angel.
His eyes were troubled as they looked into mine, searching them for something.
"Esme," he said quietly, looking confused and bewildered.
Why was he so worried? I wanted to smooth away the worry lines in his forehead, but my arm wouldn't respond to my commands to move.
"Dr. Cullen?" I whispered, still unsure of why he was here with me now.
"Hang on, Esme. Be strong, and I'll be here when you wake up."
He leaned closer, and for a moment, I thought he might kiss me. His lips were slightly cool as they brushed against my neck. My heart fluttered, and my head spun at the contact, inappropriate as it may have been. His lips left my skin only a moment before a searing pain ripped through the flesh he'd just kissed. There was no time to think, no time to wonder as darkness consumed me once more.
Rows of beds lined the walls of the ward as I walked down the aisle, taking an inventory of the bodies that now lay peacefully in their sleep. The day staff had long since left the confines of the old hospital, and I drifted from bedside to bedside, monitoring the vitals of each of the patients. The hospital was usually quiet in the evening, and I had long grown used to the soft sounds that were now so familiar to me.
I could hear the flustered heartbeat of Sister Catherine, the head nurse, in the distance as she approached the door at the far end of the ward. She was an elderly woman who had committed her life to the Church and resided in the neighboring hospital accommodation wing. It was not unusual for Catherine to continue to work after-hours, but rarely this late, and I briefly wondered if all was well.
My eyes remained focused on the limp, pale white wrist that I held in my own hand as I counted each beat of the patient's weakened heart. I was aware of the soft breeze that moved through the large, open ward before hearing the door close quietly behind me. Without taking my eyes from the hand before me, I quietly addressed the incoming nurse.
"Good evening, Sister Catherine."
The echo of her heel as she paused in her step permeated the air for a long moment before her breathy reply broke though the silence.
"Oh, Dr. Cullen. I'm sorry. I didn't see you there."
I gently placed the patient's hand down on the blanket before turning away and collecting my clipboard from the bedside cabinet, marking off the relevant information. I allowed my eyes to glance over the paper on the clipboard to Sister Catherine and smiled warmly as she approached.
"I hope the poor weather isn't a distraction at this late hour."
Sister Catherine shook her head as she placed the fresh linen she'd been holding on the corner of the empty bed nearest to her. She brushed away the stray strands of hair that fell across her face. Her cheeks flushed as I turned to the next bed and continued with my routine.
"Your concern is quiet unnecessary, doctor." She sighed. "I'm afraid my late hour was due to an unexpected visitor – the sheriff just left."
I drew my attention away from the woman who lay in the bed and turned to meet Sister Catherine's eye for a moment.
"I wasn't aware that he had visited tonight."
She nodded, playing with the hem of the bed sheet that sat atop of the pile of laundry.
"Yes. There was...an incident earlier...it was a tragedy, actually."
I stepped away from the bedside, my attention focused on Sister Catherine as I took in her features. Her eyes glistened under the flickering lights, though I saw her aged features in perfect clarity. Her brow furrowed as she recalled the previous events, and I wondered what had happened to stir such a reaction in Sister Catherine.
"A young woman was brought in this evening. I'm sorry I didn't say earlier; I didn't want to disturb you, doctor."
I frowned as I re-called today's roster, unable to account for the additional patient in question as Sister Catherine continued.
"They found her out by North Point...poor child. Apparently, she jumped."
Catherine placed her hand atop the pile and turned her face away.
"I'm sorry, I wasn't aware anyone was brought in."
She nodded softly.
"I don't understand why someone would do such a thing."
Sister Catherine always had a remarkable way of handing the loss that always surrounded us in this environment, but I also understood the intricacy of the situation. We had, on occasion, discussed religion and our individual beliefs, but I knew that theory and reality were often very different to handle.
I nodded in return as I placed my hand gently on her shoulder.
"It is not for us to understand, Catherine. The loss of human life is always a tragedy."
We stood in silence for a long moment, each of us lost in our own thoughts. The past four years had been particularly difficult for Sister Catherine and the staff at Cleveland State Hospital. We had watched the rise of the Spanish Influenza, and I had seen the magnitude of loss within the community for myself. It was much the same across the country, and though the death toll had thankfully dropped dramatically in the last year, the hospital was still over capacity with patients and had shown no significant sign of slowing down anytime soon.
Sister Catherine dusted off her apron before lifting the bale of linen once again. She raised her eyes to meet mine before drawing a deep breath.
"Don't stay too late tonight, doctor. Lord knows you are almost as pale as some of these patients."
She forced her lips into a lackluster smile, which I returned with a gentle nod.
"Thank you, Sister. I won't be long. Will you be returning from the laundry room?"
She stiffed a yawn.
"No, this is the last for today. Good night, Doctor Cullen."
"Good night, Sister."
Sister Catherine turned on her heel and returned to her routine. I watched as she scurried across the ward and through the double doors on the opposite end of the room. The quick succession of closing doors confirmed she made her way into the East wing, and I returned about my own business as well, moving to the next patient and checking the stat sheet at the base of the bed.
I often sought the silence of the night. It was much less distracting than the day shift and allowed me to work in peace – not that I had difficulty during the day, but there was a subtle comfort in practicing during the quiet of the night and losing myself in my thoughts and medicine. I moved from bed to bed until I was satisfied that each person was in the best possible condition before leaving to the next ward. Another hour passed, before I had once again visited every bedside, eventually returning to the unmanned main reception desk and filing away my notes.
My brow furrowed slightly at the faint echo of a heartbeat. I was positive that Sister Catherine had long since retired to her quarters on the far East wing, and due to the poor design of the hospital, I was well aware that I was not close enough to the patients' ward at that moment to have heard a heartbeat from any of them.
I placed the last file onto the cabinet before finally deciding to investigate further. It wasn't uncommon to find intruders breaking into the medicine supply closet in search of aid, and I wondered if tonight was one of those nights. However, I knew that if it was the case, the person must have been in need. The heartbeat had barely registered, even with my heightened senses, and it was sporadic at best. To be honest, I wasn't even sure if it was a heartbeat, as I had missed many of the beats before the last one.
I waited for a long moment before another soft flush of blood sounded, muted by veins and skin, and I immediately took off in that general direction. I unlocked the door into the West wing, which was only functional during the day shift, and made my way down the darkened corridors. I paused at irregular intervals as I waited for the next beat to sound and direct me, curious as to who, or what, would be here at this time—and how on earth they were surviving with such a low pulse count.
As the most recent beat sounded, I looked to the door in front of me, entirely confused. Of all the rooms to hear a heartbeat sound from, the morgue was certainly the most unlikely. I took the key from the chain and unlocked the door, making my way inside. I briefly pondered walking away—the chances of it being an actual heartbeat were very slim. No human heart could survive with such slow beats; the blood would not travel through the body quickly enough.
I paused for a moment as the thought occurred to me that perhaps it actually was a heartbeat circulated. The chances that it was one of those rare occasions in which the human body defied science was, of course, minimal to none, but I couldn't shake the unsettling notion with me. It spurred me forward, and I turned the lock, opening the heavy metal door and stepping into the cold room that was the hospital's morgue. I knew, if nothing else, that checking that the room was indeed empty of life would settle my curiosity.
White dust sheets settled across the metal worktops, hiding much of the facilities for the evening. The room, though one of the busiest in the hospital, was mostly sparse, save for a few counter tops and cupboards. To anyone not familiar with the room, one would assume it had not been in use for several years, and there was little in the way of medical tools that would counter that argument. A lone trolley was laid out in the center of the room under the crude lighting facilities. The peaks of the dust sheet outlined the contents of the body – the woman from the cliff side, no doubt. I closed the door behind me and moved into the room.
Unsurprisingly, the morgue carried a certain taboo within the hospital that I couldn't entirely relate to. I had long since surpassed any sense of a normal life span, and while I retained many of my human qualities, the sense of self preservation was one that I had sadly lost. The day staff avoided the room at all costs, and bar the sheriff, the mortician and me, most people would only enter here on their final day.
The gentle flush of blood once again sounded, and I raised my head, perplexed. Sure enough, the heartbeat had come from within these walls, and while the beat remained just as weak as before, the whooshing sound was now clearer without any barriers between it and me. Once again, I was rewarded with the sound of the blood, and without thought, I moved forward and pulled the sheet back from her head and shoulders—the chances of survival already weighing heavily upon my mind.
As I pulled the edge of the sheet to one side, revealing the patient's face and upper chest, I took an involuntary step back. Had I not known better, the woman before me could have passed as someone I had once known. Her hair was a few shades darker than that of the girl in my past, but therein remained the same caramel highlights which framed her heart-shaped face. Her eyes, though closed, were strikingly similar, as were her high cheekbones and full lips.
If my heart could have beat, it would sped wildly when she opened her eyes. I had lived a long time, and there wasn't much that could surprise me after so many years of existence, but in that moment, shock overtook my senses. Her blue eyes locked onto mine, the recognition in them obvious.
"Esme," I gasped.
I watched for a long moment as I took in her delicate features and the subtle changes between the woman who lay before me and the young woman I had met ten years ago. By way of general math, it seemed appropriate that they would both be of similar age now and that the young woman that I had met before would have aged in such a way that she could, indeed, be the woman who lay before me. Something within me lurched as I wondered if fate had played a cruel hand in bringing the only woman who had consumed my thoughts daily for the past ten years on this, the day of her death.
I stared for a moment in disbelief. It really was her. Something within my soul pulled me to her, and before I had another moment to ponder the situation, her heart sounded once again. It was weaker still, and I knew within me that there was no true chance for her survival. There was nothing I could do. I considered it a miracle that she had survived this long, and no doubt, the fall would have caused substantial internal bleeding—not to mention the broken bones within her battered form. I brushed the stray hair away from her cheek, her skin almost as cool as my own to the touch as I mourned the reasons that could have possibly caused her to do such a stupid and damming thing as to jump.
The Esme I had known was headstrong and slightly stubborn but mostly craved life. Her energy and passion was clear for all to see, and as I watched closer, I could see how hollow and dead her eyes now looked, how tired and worn she had become. I wondered what had happened to have caused such a change, and I cursed myself for allowing it to happen. I had craved her company for as long as I had walked away from her that day, and a series of 'what ifs' flooded through my mind.
As her heartbeat began to falter, it was as clear today as it was the day we first met that the ties which bound me to her were as strong as ever – even more so now perhaps. I wasn't truly able to fathom the bond I felt to her then, having never felt it for another being, and it was clear the past ten years had only strengthened the pull I felt towards her as I stood by her side.
"Hang on, Esme," I whispered softly to her. "Be strong and I'll be here when you wake up," I promised, and as though on impulse, my body moved into action.
Selfishly, something in me had refused to let her go, and as my hand moved across her cheek and down past her collarbone, I barely stopped to consider the consequences of my actions as I pushed her hair to the side. Too many questions flooded through my mind, and it took little to convince myself that if I wanted answers, this would be the only way to achieve them...and ultimately to keep her alive.
As I bent down, my fingers lightly traced her cheek. I kissed her forehead softly before turning her face away from mine and took a deep breath as I prepared myself. I closed my eyes and brought my lips to her neck, once again placing a chaste kiss upon her cool skin as I reconfirmed to myself this was the only way. My teeth grazed across her neck as I patiently waited for the next flush of blood, my free hand cupping her cheek as I repeated my silent prayer over and over.
The venom pooled in my mouth as I prayed that another beat would, in fact, come – without it, there would be no way for the venom to flow freely, and without that...that was a thought I wasn't willing to consider. My prayer was finally answered as I felt the blood flow weakly under her skin and without hesitation; I sunk my teeth into her neck and immediately forced the venom tightly into the wound. To draw blood would go against everything I believed in and would undoubtedly have adverse affects in this situation. I was already worried that there would not be enough blood to circulate my venom, and as I pushed the last of it into the wound, my silent mantra filled my mind. I sealed the wound with my tongue.
I moved the sheet down slightly, giving me better access to her chest as I started cardiopulmonary resuscitation. I had read the theory in a medical journal published by Dr. George Crile in nineteen hundred and four, but due to the way in which the Spanish Influenza had traveled, I had not been given an opportunity to test out this new theory. I prayed it would suffice long enough to help the venom spread as I forced her chest up and down in a bid to move the blood.
After a long moment of no noticeable changes, her body finally tensed under the intrusion of my venom. Her eyes remained closed, and though her body barely moved, I couldn't help but feel relieved. I removed my hands from her chest and gazed at her features, knowing that the venom had taken successfully. I remembered the burn of the change explicitly, and while she had not yet cried out in agony, I knew she would—and soon. My attention soon re-focused, and I knew I had to get her out of the hospital. Immediately.
A/N: Thanks so much to our super beta, NCChris.