All in Theory
by Mackenzie L.
A one-shot in which Carlisle questions the direction of his destiny. Set pre-Twilight, early 1918.
*The Twilight Saga and all its characters are the sole property of Stephenie Meyer.
"Sit in reverie and watch the changing color of the waves that break upon the idle seashore of the mind."
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The strike of the Spanish Influenza was an unfortunate shot of lightning in an already terrible storm.
Humans were so vulnerable. They were all but blind to their fragility, like butterflies in a hurricane. With every breath they took, they drank in a thousand villainous morsels that floated through the air, inviting millions of unidentified bacteria to flower inside their straining lungs. Each breath they took added fuel to their life; their only wish was to add one more month, one more minute, one more second. They were prolonging the lifetime of their souls. More than I savored my own immunity, I envied their fruitless endeavors.
Watching these innocent men and women submit themselves to the illness was devastating. I sometimes felt as though I were watching the world from my own shadowed balcony, reading a horror tale from dusty pages that became reality as I turned them. I wished it were only a horror tale.
I had no heart to start pounding as the story reached its climax, no reason to stop and catch my breath and look around with a rush of comfort, knowing it was all just words on a page.
Because it wasn't. It was all too real.
For the first time, not only my patients were surrendering to nature's cruel strangle, many of my colleagues were losing the battle as well. Doctors often make the grave mistake of believing they are immune to the illnesses they treated. Sometimes even I believed that the few exceptionally strong physicians I knew were really as invincible as I was. The Influenza had proved us all wrong.
I would make my rounds silently, signing the certification for death sometimes several times a minute. At the end of the exhaustingly dismal day, I would rush home if I had the courage to seize a night away from it all. I walked a familiar, depressing path where the concrete knew my footsteps well. My breaths were short as I strode further and further away from my hospital – my second home – or was it truly my first? I was an idle sojourner out here, in the deep geometry of the heart of Chicago, where the giddy chanting of children echoed throughout the sooty urban streets.
I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
Their haunting voices lingered like chimes in my head, the playfully tragic cadence repeating as I hurried my way back home. This path of concrete pressed into gravel, then dust, then raw earth. Eventually it would lead me faithfully to the front door of my house, a promise made in dirt and dead grass. I shut the door and locked it, unwelcoming to the disease and despair that plagued the outside world. I shed my stiff robe of white service, and retreated to the dark, lonely comfort of my study.
The eyes of my reflection were disturbed in the window. It began to rain, and the violent pulse of the droplets on glass and shingles made me feel lonelier than ever. I was as unmoving as a gargoyle, a look of pure horror pasted on my still unfamiliar face. In all the years I had the misfortune of passing mirrors, I had never accepted this façade as my own. It was an insult to me in many ways – a flat effect of the venom – but not a blessing. It was a curse, like everything else.
My eyes turned away from the sight of myself, my heart aching with shame and a greater pain for all the rest of the world. Be it so, I knew I had kept my heart. This part of me, along with my soul, had survived the transformation. No flood of venom could ever break siege into these precious elements, gifted to me by God alone.
I knew they existed. I knew this because they still seared with pain. My heart and my soul still hurt. It saddened me that this hurt was the only proof of my heart and soul's existence, but any proof was enough for me.
In the times when my heart felt heavy, I found my memories were the most vivid. My humanity would fortify in fragments on the outskirts of my brain, like a poor reproduction of a cubist painting. I was left to piece together the message my unknown muse missed constructing. In a wave of indifference, I let it wash away and replace itself with a new memory.
She was beneath it. That second or third or fourth wave. Sometimes the tenth or the twelfth. One would crash on silver sand and release in a soft, shimmering storm. I waited for this moment with bated breath. I had no courage to summon it by will or word, but rather I waited for it to find me.
These glistening waves of the imagination retreated from my mind's shore, as sheets of translucent turquoise silk over the sawdust of the sea. With a watery whisper they slipped away, and there she was. Esme.
Never did I recall her for more than a fleeting instant. The thought of her was one to knock out of sight, to flick away like a pesky insect, to squint and bow my head from a sharp splinter of sunlight. There was nothing glorious about her. Nothing at all. But this, I supposed was the girl's most winsome attribute.
She tipped her head back with a sigh, fair fawn ringlets trickling over her pillow. Her smile was tight, but touching to a deep, deadened heart such as mine. Every blink of her eyes was cruel for covering the wonder beneath – each orb a separate world of bright, feminine imagination.
I hardly ever thought of her. And when I did, the thought was often struck at its birth.
A frazzled crack of lightning flashed on my window, as if warning me not to entertain the thought before it overtook me.
It was too late.
Just this one evening, I decided. Just this one, lonely, rainy twilight. I would let myself dream...
In the vast black fields of rural Ohio I rushed, through the dewy residue of a luscious Midwestern thunderstorm. I was daring, fast, high on the noble instruction of my doctorly duties. This was not just another night –in this dream my memory was bent, shaped to a forbidden perfection. In this dream, things were going to change.
Up the dirt path I traveled, both boots thick with mud and grass, yet none of it put a lull in my step. Here, I came to a charming wooden door, opened it quietly, and breathed in the pungent scents of home and humanity.
I found myself face to face with a corner coated in purple wallpaper. Around it I peeked, into the quiet room beyond. Every tap of my shoes on the checkerboard tiles was maddening with meaning. Each tap took me closer to her, and suddenly they stopped, softened by the worn rosy carpet of the sitting room.
She looked up from her place as I entered her peripheral, treading warily until I had blocked her field of vision entirely, straight-faced with concern, but more so with determination. Her face was as flush and young as I had remembered, the details clearer than the smears on an oil painting, inches away from me, so close I could feel their texture without a touch.
In this dream, she knew my name long before our introductions.
I did nothing to acknowledge her, for she needed none. All the confirmation she could ask for was here, behind these golden eyes, burning for her.
In this dream, she held up her arms for me, and in this dream I pulled her into my embrace. Up, away from the presumptuous drag of gravity. I picked her up and held her like she belonged to me. Because in this dream, she did.
"Where are we going?" she asked, her voice like warm feathers tickling my neck. I did not answer her right away, for the sensation had rendered me speechless.
"We are leaving," I answered her cryptically, enjoying the way her hands tightened trustingly around my shoulders. She did not struggle as I took her into the dimly lit hallway, out the door, and into the night.
The plantation was rich, moist, earthy in the darkness. Everything felt so heavy with life. And she was almost heavy in my arms. The strength of my arms was unbreakable, but the strength of my resolve was uncertain.
I felt her fidget and release a whimper of pain, courtesy of the lopsided bones in her delicate leg. Her hopeful hands held me more firmly with every step I took. I was not slow, but I was steady.
We were beautifully silent as the countryside melted around us. Crickets and night owls offered their monotonous ambience, fireflies pulsed through the humid air ahead of us, like the guiding twirl of a lighthouse on the distant shore. The clouds grew lazy and the horizon ceased to grumble. A bashful moon peered over a porch of gray cotton, and it watched us with tender curiosity, as a child who must see the end of the story before he goes to bed.
"Are we going in the right direction, Doctor Cullen?" Esme asked me, her sweet murmur sending a pleasant pang to my core.
I answered her truthfully, my instinct to whisper. "We will only know once we have reached our destination." I had always been frustratingly soft-spoken.
"How far do you think it is?" she asked breathlessly, her autumn eyes glistening like patina.
"Not far, Esme," I answered her – and this time I was sure. My voice was not as soft, but it was passionate with reassurance. "Not far."
Just the breath of this young woman in my arms was a substance as precious as blood to me. In my hollow chest, I felt a powerful swelling, a light rising from a space far from my reach. As everything around us grew darker, this light seared brighter, oxidizing my soul from the inside out. My icy flesh became warm ceramic, from the gentle friction of her body against mine. The battle between coolness and heat, light and dark, moon and ground... it was so intoxicating. So real... This dream...
Dear Lord, this dream...
I was broken when it ended, but I never relived it.
I longed to throw myself back into the fantasy world of that one, insignificant, humid night. I yearned to see how the story would end, and I cursed that sly crescent moon for watching the rest without me.
Thoughts of Esme slowly drifted from my mind like a dying fire that never burned very brightly to begin with. The flames seemed so precious when they first began their dance, but before their sparkle could reflect in my eyes, they wisped away with the smoke.
The end of this journey pricked my heart on a spindle. It was a blanket of thin fabric upon which my fantasies were woven. The threads unraveled and tangled around my desperate fingers. I could handle a thing as delicate as a man's veins, but these slippery spider-silk threads... I could not tie the knots quickly enough.
When the rain ceased pounding around me, I looked up from the teary window pane and sighed. The clouds were not yet parting, but I knew they had to someday. This was only a brief and fleeting fissure for my heart.
I was needed here in the solid, rainy world. In the political turmoil and the smoke of the city and the silence of my study, I could always find myself. I could always have a purpose here.
Those foolish dreams were cast away; I was a sailor on unfamiliar waters, ready to come back to the harbor after a night spent searching for an island that did not exist.
Looking for islands was a fruitless practice. If it held any merit there would have been thousands of books written for men like me. But I had yet to touch my thumb to the page of such an anthology.
One would think I'd have come across it by now. No title had caught my eye quite like the one that not yet been written. Perhaps I would have to write it.
Of course, this was all in theory.
Somehow, my lips felt a curious tug in the upward direction. A foreign strain stretched them into something resembling a smile, and I saw it in the reflection of the rainy window –such an odd expression. Yet there was a comfort to it, a muffled hope humming inside my chest, like the voice of a familiar friend after a long while spent away.
The night had gone by too fast, and for this I was grateful. The fantasy world was just a blink backstage as I lifted myself into action for a new day.
The hospital was still in its peaceful state –a calm before the storm in the early hours of morning. It was the perfect way to begin again, I thought as I opened my notices for the day. New patients were always a good thing.
I savored each new name with a trigger of devoted energy. Here, I felt a tinge of that addicting courage I'd felt when I first committed to this place. I had married myself to the process of healing. It was the gladiator's goblet before entering the lion's den. It was thick and consuming and holy. I felt like myself again. Like a doctor again.
Under the spell of this curious stirring, I looked down with inspired eyes to the last oak-tag card in my hand.
Edward Anthony Masen, Ward 17–A.
*The poem mentioned in this fic was a real rhyme that children used to recite while playing in the streets; rather like "Ring-around-the-rosy," it was sadly inspired by the outbreak of an epidemic – in this case, the Influenza.