1. Cheater of Death

Chicago
September, 1918

The day the first influenza patient arrived, Carlisle was in a foul mood.

It was a rare occurrence. He was often made fun of by his compatriots for his frequently irritating optimism. He had the vaguest of memories of having once screamed at someone in an adolescent rage—his father, he supposed—but on the whole his tendency was toward peace and harmony. From what he could remember of his young adulthood, he had always been even-tempered and good-natured, and these traits seemed to have been magnified to a point that his unflappability was superhuman.

This, of course, made perfect sense.

But this evening, his optimism had been stolen several hours before he’d come in to work. The shots had rung out just before twilight, startling him from his personal reading. At once his ears remembered the crack of the gunshot on the street in front of his building. The shooter had been aiming for someone else, obviously—who, the police had been unable to determine. A gentleman with a fine car had placed the little girl’s bleeding body on the rear seat without hesitation, and sped toward the hospital, less than a mile away.

Four floors above the congested street, Carlisle had crumpled against the cool glass of his windowpane as he watched, horrified by the sight and by his own helplessness. For the girl—Maria, age eight, he had read on the death certificate later that evening—had been shot in full sunlight.

There was a loud thunk as his fist landed suddenly with a little too much pressure against the soft wood of his desk. He watched as a tiny fissure spread a few inches out from the point of impact. A human would not have been able to see it happen, but to Carlisle, time was at once incredibly slow and far too fast.

Cradling his right fist in his left hand, he muttered to himself, “Take it easy.” He had been saying that to himself more often lately. He was good at control—this was something on which his compatriots had congratulated him repeatedly even as he knew they puzzled over the enigma he presented. Yet it seemed that with each passing year, his control was ebbing. It was going in tiny increments, to be sure, but it seemed to be slipping. Inconsequential acts of frustration for a human, but for him, even something as simple as a pounded fist bore the risk that he would be discovered.

He drew a steadying breath. It wasn’t worth it. There were too many lives to be saved, too many people who would benefit from his existence for him to be discovered and destroyed over the death of only one. His brothers in Italy gave him a great deal of leeway, but their grace was contingent on his unending temperance.

Sighing, Carlisle closed his eyes and leaned forward. The wood of the desk was cool and smooth beneath his cheek, and though he needed no rest, he pressed his face to the surface and lay still.

At night, the hospital was quiet, or very nearly so. No carts of supplies rattling, just the shuffling feet of the night nurses and the one or two other physicians on the graveyard shift. The occasional conversation murmured at a pitch low enough as not to wake the other patients in the ward. Carlisle worked nights because it kept his secret, but in truth he also enjoyed the peace. At night he was neither beast nor man—in the quiet of the hospital, he was only a healer.

That part, however, was changing. He longed for the days when he had been known; even tangentially. He had once made house calls by lantern light, nursing fevered bodies as they trembled, guiding squalling infants into the world in the wee hours of the morning. He had held patients’ hands and comforted their families. Medicine itself had improved, there was no doubt. Every passing day it seemed they understood disease better—laboratories now examined blood and bile for tiny particles that were invisible even to his eye. Pasteur and Lister led the charge for sanitary practices, and as a result fewer patients fell under his now constantly-washed hands. Babies were born in clean rooms on white sheets while fathers waited in rooms down the hall.

Now when he put on the coat that marked him, he ceased to be Carlisle any longer. Those around him knew him only as “Dr. Cullen.” He was only one more; another physician at Cook County Hospital, bearer of iodine, ether, and frequently, bad news. No one wondered any longer why he was all too glad to be assigned the graveyard shift year after year, why a man so attractive lacked a wife and children, where he got off to at dawn when he ambled away from the new brick building. Medical colleges were opening all over the country, joining the ones where he had kept up his training and honed his mind on new knowledge. New doctors joined the field seemingly every day. He was dispensable. Replaceable.

And always alone.

He opened his eyes and twisted in his chair. Where other doctors posted their diplomas and licenses, he had a single painting. It depicted the Boston Common at dusk in a hazy abstraction. Through the paint, one could make out the shape of couples strolling hand-in-hand down the tree-lined paths, of a man lying lazily on a bench, his arm draped downward, a newspaper on his chest. And off to the side, the image of two men, seated at a table. In the painting they were nearly indistinguishable from the green background, but Carlisle knew that the one was supposed to be a young blond doctor, the other a dark-haired painter, laughing over a disputed game of chess.

Thirty years later, the young doctor now sat alone in his office, communication having been cut between him and his chess companion. To stay in contact, of course, posed too great a risk. Yet the painting—a gift to Carlisle from Hassam before the painters’ work had gained notoriety—had followed him, moving from office to office; from Maine, to Ohio, and now to Chicago, the only reminder Carlisle had of that short summer in Boston when he’d once had a friend.

Now he sat alone in the darkness, over a thousand miles from Boston, idly scanning the paperwork which was supposed to occupy his evening shift. At the edge of his wide desk, a single taper candle flickered, sending light skittering across the pages of charts. His night vision was impeccable—to his eyes, items simply shifted colors as night fell—and so he had no need of light at all. But the candle reminded him of days when he had been a different being altogether and he enjoyed this, even as electricity had slowly made itself commonplace.

He had, of course, habituated himself to turning on and off the artificial bulbs when he entered or exited a room, but he preferred candlelight, the way its soft yellow glow seemed to arrive and hurriedly leave as he stared at the pages of forms.

For a moment, he thrust his palm over the flame, letting it lick his skin. His body registered the sensations—warmth, a bit of a tickle—and his experience could map that to what his patients would feel: painful burning. But such an intense sensation was no longer his to feel, and instead, he simply held his hand in the middle of the flame until a line of smoky char appeared on his palm.

“You’ll hurt yourself doing that, doctor.”

His hand withdrew quickly—too quickly. Knowing that the nurse who stood in his doorway hadn’t yet been able to register the movement, he replaced his hand in the flame and jerked it backwards once more, slowly. He quickly brushed the charred skin of his palm against his slacks, pressing his hand to his thigh so that the she wouldn’t see. Already he could feel the tingle of tissue regenerating.

The night nurse’s name was Dorothy, and Carlisle liked her. She was a plump woman with a pleasant face and might have been a physician herself if she had been allowed to be. He didn’t doubt she had already deduced that it was no accident that his hand had been roasting over the flame on his desk. She said nothing however, sweeping to his side with a medical chart.

“We’ve got a problem down in the third ward,” she announced, plunking the chart next to him. On it was a list of temperatures, starting at ninety-nine and raising to a hundred and three. He blinked and looked again at the timestamp she’d put on each one. No, he’d read it correctly the first time, not that it was possible that he could’ve misread it. This was over the course of four hours. Carefully, slow enough that Dorothy could follow his movements, he thumbed back to the first page. John Richardson, age twenty-two. He frowned.

Young men didn’t run fevers this high.

He tapped a finger on the measurements. “This has been over four hours?”

Dorothy nodded and yanked the chart from under his hands, a move that other doctors might have felt was impudent, but which Carlisle almost appreciated. It bespoke a familiarity, an openness, that few were willing to share with him. He liked Dorothy’s forwardness and the way she handled herself around him. She felt comfortable, and that was a rare gift.

“He’s got a raging flu, Doctor. Shivers, fever, everything.”

“What was he here for?”

“That’s the thing,” Dorothy said, and she slid a single wide hip onto the desk, dropping the chart to the desk with a soft thunk. “He wasn’t here for nothing. He was visiting his momma. I heard a crash in the ward where she was, and when I went in he was on the floor sweating like a stuck pig, with his eyes all gone bloodshot. So I brung him to Third Ward, and I’ve been watching. But I’ve never seen a fever like this.”

Carlisle hadn’t, either. He rose at the same time that Dorothy did, and she had moved toward the door before he could instruct her to take him to the patient. As they exited the small, dark office, Carlisle extinguished the candle with a quick breath, and glanced down at his palm.

It was once again unblemished.

~||x||~

He was a strong man, it seemed. A sailor in the Navy, on furlough to take care of his mother, who was in residence at the Cook County Hospital for whooping cough. Everything about his body said that he should be healthy. Carlisle was used to seeing the bodies that became ravaged by influenza—infants, elderly, those who were so ill with some other ailment that they could barely stand already. This young man showed none of those signs, yet his cot was quickly drenching with his sweat, and it rattled against the floor as he trembled with chills.

When Carlisle laid his hand over the young man’s brow, his patient let out a shuddering breath. Carlisle’s hands were perpetually cool—lack of blood flow did that to a body—but he imagined that to this young man, whose body must feel aflame, his cold touch was for once welcome. He allowed his hand to linger a moment longer than it needed to, absorbing the warmth radiating off the other man’s brow.

Dorothy hovered over the bed, her brow furrowed as Carlisle performed his examination. The lymph tissue was swollen, and even without the aid of a stethoscope Carlisle could hear already the crackle of lungs filling with fluid. He’d heard stories about the new bronchopneumonia; a disease which had supposedly hitched a ride home from Europe with America’s young men. But he’d dismissed the reports out of hand as tall tales. He could tell the difference between myth and reality—especially given that he was closer to the former than the latter himself—and the stories of perfectly healthy, strong soldiers stricken down and dying in a matter of days had seemed impossible.

Yet the clattering of the metal bed against the floor said very differently.

Carlisle stood, replacing his stethoscope over his neck as he exited the room. Dorothy followed him, her eyes full of concern.

“Doctor?” she said when they were almost out of the ward.

“Get him a blanket,” Carlisle snapped, his voice more clipped than he intended. It startled Dorothy so much that she tripped. He caught her, and she stared up at him, for a moment doe-eyed, but then quickly returning to shock. Fear. For a moment he thought about softening his gaze, telling her he was sorry, that he hadn’t meant to come off so harshly. But he didn’t, and she simply nodded deftly, turned, and was gone. He listened to her breathing and footsteps as she hurried away. Up the hall, down the stairs—the hospital laundry was in the basement of the building. At night, the quiet thrum of the machines’ chugging was constant and Carlisle liked its constancy, as though it were the heartbeat of this building where so many lives met their own end.

As that of the sailor would, unless he was able to stop it.

Again a frustrated anger surged through him and he had nearly ripped a beam from the wall when he stopped himself, one hand grabbing the wrist of the other where it trembled. The irony almost made him laugh. He could tear down the building with his bare hands, pulling the walls in over himself, and he would still stand. He was all but indestructible, and yet all around him humans died because he was so weak in the face of their illnesses and their pain.

While he stood trying to decide whether to go back and examine the man again, walk his rounds, or return to his office, Dorothy’s voice floated to him. One of the other night nurses had met her in the laundry, and she’d recounted her assessment of the the sick man, Carlisle’s examination, and his too-harsh order.

The other nurse’s voice was awed when she answered. “Dr. Cullen is a looker, but he’s frightening. I don’t know how you walk right into his office the way you do.”

Dorothy sighed. “He’s a good doctor,” she said firmly. “Smart. Wise, even though I’m old enough to be his momma.” She chuckled at this. “But there’s something that’s off, you’re right. I just think he don’t like people, that’s all. Prefers to sit alone up in that office of his. You know, when I went in there tonight, he had his hand over his candle, just sitting there. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was trying to set fire to himself…”

Not wanting to hear any more, Carlisle turned and walked quickly to get the women out of his earshot. He strode past his office, past the nursery, past the surgical rooms, until the women’s voices were an indistinguishable murmur. He found himself in the large storeroom off the operating rooms, staring at rows of identical glass bottles. Ether, used for keeping the patients unconscious. He fingered them absently as he stood.

“I just think he don’t like people, that’s all.”

He moaned quietly. Nothing was further from the truth. His exile from humankind was anything but self-imposed. Clutching his wrist, he thought of the brothers in Italy, the way they would bring the weight of the law down on those they deemed transgressors. It had been only Aro’s bemused fascination with Carlisle and Carlisle’s convictions that kept him able to be with the humans in the first place. He remembered the heinous metallic ripping, the fire, the purple flame…

He gulped. There were times that he longed for his own body to come to that peace. He had cheated death in so many ways—first with his own, and now by healing the patients whom normal doctors couldn’t cure. Surely, somehow, Death would be coming for its retribution. It was one thing for him to live, but hundreds of others, too?

And if by some miracle it did come, he would welcome it.

Leaning against the cool wall, he closed his eyes, balling his hands into fists at his side as he inhaled the fumes of the ether. Humans drifted off into a sweet sleep under its spell. His left hand suddenly fumbled for a bottle, and he’d soaked a paper cone in the noisome fluid and pulled it to his face before he’d thought further—one of the terrible consequences of his being was his ability to move faster than he could rationally think.

He drew a deep breath…and waited. It was enough ether to have killed a patient on the first breath. He knew the signs—the slackened jaw, the lolling tongue, the heaving of a diaphragm against lugs which were unable to pull in air. And though he knew this would not come for him, a tiny piece of him wanted to test it anyway. So he inhaled again, waiting. But no chemicals were pulled into his bloodstream, no fumes made their way to his brain.

There would be no cessation of respiration for him. He had no need to respire at all.

The cone crumpled in his fist and dropped to the floor, and the ether bottle clanged back down on the shelf. He breathed deeply the clear air of the room, and although he was certain the ether had had no effect on him, his brain seemed clearer nonetheless. Picking up the cone, he threw it in the wastebasket and made his way to the deep basin on one wall to rinse his hands.

If the febrile man in the third ward truly had the bronchopneumonia, then he had only a short time. Wallowing in sadness was a luxury he couldn’t afford when there were lives to be saved. Quickly, he flicked the faucet on and cupped the cold water in his hands, splashing his face. The humans did that from time to time, but to him the shock of the cold water was nonexistent. Yet the gesture was comforting anyway. It was renewal—the waters of the font coming to grace him once more. He straightened, and strode purposefully toward the door.

A patient was dying, and as long as Carlisle was doomed to continue cheating death, the least he could do would be to heal those who had thus far barely lived.

The door to his office opened easily. He sat down at his desk, shuffling aside the reading he’d been doing to make room for a fresh sheet of paper to write down his initial observations of the young sailor. From his breast pocket he produced the matches he always carried, and a moment later his candle was burning again, sending light and shadow bouncing against the walls.

“He’s wise,” came Dorothy’s voice in his memory as he stared again at the flame that she’d caught him in front of only a few hours before. “Even though I’m old enough to be his momma.” Carlisle snorted. Old enough to be his mother, indeed. Dorothy was fifty-one.

Carlisle was two hundred and seventy-four.

Putting the nib of his pen to the paper, he began to write.

Forward
Back
Chapter Notes

§ 10 Responses to 1. Cheater of Death"

  • jennyfly says:

    i’m wondering when chloroform replaced ether with it’s complications, or were they contemporaries? my grandmother was given chloroform as anesthetic in 1930 when she had a mastoidectomy, but she had a terrible allergic reaction to the stuff.
    as a side note, before they could get her over to town where there was a doctor with a surgery to take care of her ear properly, it was treated by the local doctor thus: a lump of butter was heated in a cast iron skillet and a vedalia onion was cut right in half and placed flat down on the hot butter til all the onion juices were leeched out and a clear brown liquid remained. this liquid was decanted into a pipette and then little gerogia raye lay on the table while the hot onion butter juice was poured into her ear.
    she said the relief from pain was instantaneous and wonderful. but of course it wasn’t long after that she had to have the mastoid removed. they had to crack the skull just-so with a ball peen hammer back then.
    i sure would’ve wanted Carlisle for my surgeon.

    • giselle says:

      hmmm. I believe chloroform was later, because I didn’t run across it…but I’ll have to check on that one.
      And what a fascinating story. The surgical techniques of that era weird me out–but they’re interesting to look at.

  • Tina says:

    The moment with the flame is so interesting – almost suicidal, really. He could end his own life with flame and he is lonely and seems depressed. He finds purpose in saving others. Carlisle is the ultimate selfless doctor.

    As always, I’m looking forward to more.

    • giselle says:

      That moment was funny. I was struggling with the story mightily this summer, and one night while I was writing, the power blew. So I lit a candle and wrote about 400 words by candlelight, and the very next thing out of my fingers when the power came back on was that.

  • Anonymous says:

    I loved this chapter, from the way you intrduced the story of Carlisle’s friendship with the artist to the remarkably non-depressing way you described his depression. It’s curious that you decided that Carlisle shouldn’t feel his hand in the fire; from what Eleazar said in BD about how when Aro is in a charitable mood, he has Alec numb vampires who are being burned to death, I’d have thought vampires do feel fire.

    • giselle says:

      Whops! Sorry I forgot to push this one through the queue. But yes. I think vampires do feel fire, especially when they’re immersed in it and already dismembered. But even humans can hold their hands in a single candle flame for a little while (I can’t advise you to try that at home, but, well…try it sometime) so I scaled down the effect accordingly. You aren’t the only one to ask about this section, though, so perhaps I’ll make a little bit of an edit there.

  • RedSummer says:

    This was a wonderful chapter. It’s very clear to see how easy it is for even the most charitable of souls to become overwhelmed by years of isolation and a lack of intimate contact with others. I think it particularly telling that you chose to begin this chapter with Carlisle is a less-than-favourable mood, which is contrast to how he is widely portrayed.

    I found the ‘flame’ scene also quite enlighteneing when you consider the juxtaposition between what it means to be human and the reality of being vampire. Most humans do not naturally embrace death, a rare few are able to make peace with the concept of it. That Carlisle should find himself in a position where he almost feels as if he has experienced too much life – as he watches humans give birth, grow old and eventually pass over – it must be a great sadness that dsepite all of his abilities and experiences there will always be something just out of his reach, a conclusion, a resolution, a reason to have existed at all. We are the sum total of what we leave behind us, our gifts and the impressions we leave on others. If we are destined never to leave then how is it possible to keep striving for the best that we can achieve? Look forward to the next installment.

  • pace is the trick says:

    This is absolutely brilliant and I would love to have it on my LJ comm for all the readers who won’t venture here to find it (I followed you here from LJ).

    I very much like your Carlisle in all his contradictory complexity. In fact, I would love to chat with you about him sometime if you are ever on LJ.

    Two thumbs up for this one, Giselle! Now I understand why you won the contest even with so few chapters. I have yet to read anything on Carlisle that equals this in its thorough character analysis.

    Note: “In 1847, the Edinburgh obstetrician James Young Simpson first used chloroform for general anesthesia during childbirth. The use of chloroform during surgery expanded rapidly thereafter in Europe. In the United States, chloroform began to replace ether as an anesthetic at the beginning of the 20th century; however, it was quickly abandoned in favor of ether upon discovery of its toxicity, especially its tendency to cause fatal cardiac arrhythmia analogous to what is now termed “sudden sniffer’s death”. Ether is still the preferred anesthetic in some developing nations due to its high therapeutic index and low price. Trichloroethylene, a halogenated aliphatic hydrocarbon related to chloroform, was proposed as a safer alternative, though it, too, was later found to be carcinogenic.”

  • Suzaddiction says:

    I am so enjoying your tone/style of writing. I feel like we’re delving deep into the psyche of he who is Carlisle. I love your descriptiveness… the painting which in turn eludes to his feelings of loneliness, the burning with the candle (subconsciously desiring suicide?). and of course his never ending compasson for humanity. Well done… thankyou so much for this wonderful story.

    • giselle says:

      Thank you, Suz! Diving deep into C is the whole idea of this one…I find him unendingly fascinating, so I’m always excited to share my take on him with others.

      I should mention that another very talented author wrote a story picking up on the story of Carlisle and Childe Hassam: Stop All the Clocks, by malianani. She took that idea and ran with it in a way I never could’ve dreamed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>