11. Infantryman

Chicago, Illinois
October, 1918

Heat from the tea radiated into Elizabeth’s palms as she turned the porcelain cup carefully in her hands. October was coming on cold. The Sun-Times thought this was good—they hoped that somehow it would slow the transmission of the influenza.

Elizabeth had her doubts.

“Beth?”

She looked up. Theresa had been a mere acquaintance from the Ladies’ Aid society at the church. But that was before Edward Senior and Theresa’s Michael had been taken by the influenza only two days apart. Like Elizabeth, Theresa’s children were nearly grown, and like Edward Junior, Theresa’s son had a perverse desire to be at war.

Except that Charles was old enough to enlist, and therefore, already overseas.

“I was thinking about Charles,” Elizabeth muttered. “You know Edward Junior wants to be at war.”

Her friend nodded. “I recall you saying that—he went down to enlist, didn’t he? Was caught by one of the teachers from the Latin school?”

She nodded. “If it weren’t for the fact that keeping him alive is what I’m aiming to do, I would have killed that boy.”

They both chuckled but quickly fell silent again.

“Edward wanted Junior to go to war,” Elizabeth muttered at last. “Sometimes I think…well, is it silly to feel like Edward wouldn’t be gone if I’d done what he wanted?”

Her friend smiled sadly, reaching across the table to take Elizabeth’s hand. “I think the same thing. I lay awake at night making faces at God. Asking him if I go back and change things, if I do a little bit more of the things Michael wanted. Maybe if I let him buy that Chevrolet, or if we’d taken the train to the shore in Michigan, like he always wanted to do in the summer. The air in the car or the air at the shore would’ve made him stronger, maybe.”

Elizabeth smiled a little smile.

“I know. Doesn’t make an ounce of sense.”

She shook her head.

“But neither does sending Junior off to war. Your heart would break, Beth. Mine does, and I still have Janice here with her babies. If Junior goes over to the war, you won’t have anyone.”

It was true. Although, to be honest, the subject of the war hadn’t come up once in the two weeks since Edward’s passing. It was as if Junior’s every desire had evaporated. He didn’t play the piano; he rarely went out with his friends. There was a single package of Lucky Strikes on his bureau, that, as far as she could tell, was not being depleted. He had been reading Dickens and Doyle, but these novels were now upended on his nightstand.

Three weeks ago, any report from overseas was a chance for Junior to stare wistfully at the radio, and proclaim loudly what he would do differently if only he were allowed to go fight.

But now these proclamations were gone. He almost never turned the radio on.

As if she were reading her mind, Theresa asked, “How is Edward Junior?”

Elizabeth shrugged. There had been no funeral, for people were forbidden to congregate. And no burial, either. As the doctor had predicted, there were no undertakers willing to handle the body. When she’d come home from the hospital that day, Junior had been sitting at the piano, practicing her favorite Chopin nocturnes. He allowed her to run her hands through his hair while he played. When she started to cry, he simply rose from the piano bench and held her. He didn’t need to ask what had happened.

In the days since, they hadn’t spoken of it. Like his father, Edward Junior was a stoic. He spoke of assuming the management of the family’s bank accounts without ever once referring to why this would be necessary. He sent a letter off to the keeper of the grounds at their church to find out what it would cost to order a headstone. He took to carrying his father’s pocket watch and lighter, and the way he resembled Senior with his lopsided trousers caused tears to well in Elizabeth’s eyes every time.

It was only at night, when the house was dark and all was still, that she heard the wet, quavering breaths echo down the hall as her child sobbed.

“He does as well as might be expected,” she said. “He’s a good boy.”

Her friend nodded sadly. “I don’t even know if Charles has received the telegram yet. I don’t know if I’ll even get a letter from him when he does…they say the French and English troops are marching on the German front. Don’t know if our boys will be sent with them.”

The news lately had been encouraging, if one ignored the death toll. Germany was receding—the line in France was supposed to be able to be breached by the Allies.

“Is it cruel of me,” she said to Theresa, “that I hope for an end to the war not to end the war, but to keep Junior from enlisting?”

Her friend gave her a sorrowful look, and Elizabeth realized at once she was thinking about her own son. Charles had attended Latin school with Junior. He was a few years older, a few inches taller, and a good bit larger, too. Although she wouldn’t admit it to Theresa, she had an easier time imagining Charles there, with the drab uniform and tin hat. But she couldn’t imagine her own child in that dress. The hands, which were so skilled before a piano keyboard, holding a gun instead?

Her friend stared at her.

“I’m sorry,” Elizabeth mumbled. “That was quite rude of me to say.”

Theresa shook her head. “I understand, Beth. I don’t want Charles over there, either.” She reached across the table and squeezed Elizabeth’s hand. “And I’ll pray with you that the war ends before Edward can go.”

The women sat in silence awhile, spoons clinking against china as each stirred her tea.

The knock was so aggressive that Elizabeth, who was taking a sip when it came, slopped tea down the front of her dress. It started to spread, a strange, light reddish brown over her breasts. She muttered a string of excuses to Theresa and stood from the table.

The boy on the stoop was blond and mousy, his eyes wide behind his thick glasses. She recognized him as one of Junior’s classmates.

“Mrs. Masen? I’m Eugene. Eugene McElhinny..”

Eugene’s face was flushed, and she realized a moment later, dripping with sweat. He appeared to have run to her doorstep—from where, she didn’t know. She nodded for him to go on.

Later, she would wonder what she’d been expecting. Whether she’d been thinking that there would only be a brief announcement, perhaps an invitation for Junior to go out with his friends—never mind that he had been out with them for the better part of the afternoon. But she wasn’t expecting the three words that Eugene spoke:

“It’s Edward, ma’am.”

Edward? She had barely begun to form the question, “I’m sorry?” when she looked over Eugene’s shoulder and saw the others, nearly halfway down the street.

They were large boys, two of the backers or whatever they were called from the Latin school football team. She’d forgotten their names, but Edward spent time with them often, smoking Lucky Strikes and pilfering whatever bathtub gin they could get their hands on. It was a frigid day, and both boys were dressed in thick coats, their scarves flapping in the wind—one end behind their necks, tassels flying, and one end whipping the face of the boy who hung between them.

This third boy’s feet moved of their own accord, but only barely so, and he’d slung an arm over each of the other boys’ shoulders to keep himself upright. His face was hidden, but even in the faint light that was all of the setting sun hidden behind the clouds, she could see the reddish hair shining.

Elizabeth ran before she was even conscious of commanding herself to, and she nearly tripped and fell as she flew off the concrete porch stairs. She screamed to him, crying out his name over and over. “Edward” and “Junior” and even “Teddy,” the nickname they’d tried to give him but which he’d refused since the age of four.

She nearly slammed into the boys carrying him. His hands slid from their shoulders and clasped around her neck instead, his face finding its way into her shoulder so that she could feel his hair, dampened with sweat. His body was unnaturally hot against hers. Edward had rarely been ill as a child, but when he had, he’d had the tendency to run high fevers and to suffer for days. Of course, then he had been small enough that even she had been able to lift him and pull his fevered body to her own. Now, it was all she could do to keep him upright as he stumbled forward.

At once, she began running her hands through hair already sticky with sweat, mumbling her child’s name over and over. He collapsed against her, his head falling heavy against her breasts for the first time in at least a decade.

Her mind began to race. How long did he have? Senior had expired in only two days. There were stories of dozens who’d been stricken in the morning and died in the afternoon.

Edward’s breath was hot and wet against her neck. He was panting as though he’d run several miles, when instead he was barely able to stand. Where would she take him? The hospitals were closed to new admissions. And how would she even get him there, with him barely able to stand? They didn’t have an automobile, and even if they had, she wouldn’t have known how to drive it.

“Beth?”

She spun halfway, her shoulders twisting as she kept her arms firmly around Edward.

Theresa stood behind her, her eyes wet. “Do you need help getting him inside the house?”

Elizabeth nodded, her eyes flooding. Theresa and Elizabeth took the place of the two large boys and Edward’s body sagged between them as they turned back to the house.

“Thank you,” she managed, as the boys began to walk away. Their steps were quick; and no wonder. It had been an heroic enough action simply to bring Edward home; she understood that now they wished to put as much distance between themselves and a so obviously-infected person.

One of the boys tipped his hat to her, and Eugene said, “You’re welcome, Mrs. Masen.” He looked nervously from her to Edward and back, and mumbled, “I hope he gets better.”

Absently, still looking at Edward, Elizabeth nodded to Eugene.

“Thank you,” she muttered, trying not to acknowledge the content of what Eugene had just offered.

Because they both knew the odds.

Edward shuffled slowly between the two women as they progressed back to the house. When they managed to make it inside, they helped Edward onto the couch in the sitting room. He groaned, throwing one lanky arm over his head.

“Edward,” she murmured. “Edward, I’m going to help you. Mama will help you. I’m going to go get a cold rag.”

Theresa, however, had beaten her to it. She thrust the dripping cloth into Elizabeth’s hands—it felt as though it had been put in the cold box, and perhaps it had. She laid it on Edward’s brow, and he trembled.

What was she going to do? Edward had been responsible for helping to get Senior to the hospital. She had no way of getting him there—if they would even take him.

“Mother,” he managed a moment later, his lips shaking as though he’d just come in from a snowstorm. “The doctors.”

He drew a shaky breath and then broke into a coughing fit.

At once, Elizabeth propped his back up, as she had done so many times when he’d been ill as a child. Her hands remembered the feel of the spindly body before them, the way he’d been so skinny that she could feel every bump of his spine. That wasn’t the case any longer. Her son was still slender, but his body had filled out. The once thin back was now covered with strong muscle that contracted violently with each cough.

“It’s all right, sweetheart,” she murmured. “I’ll take care of you.”

His head shook furiously. “I need—a doctor,” he managed.

It was the same thing his father had said. And in the same, authoritative manner.

“Beth?”

Theresa looked over Elizabeth’s shoulders at them both.

“Let me go on,” she murmured. “I’ll get Janice’s Michael. They have a new Ford, did I tell you that?”

Elizabeth shook her head, temporarily bewildered. A car? She hadn’t mentioned it earlier, but it was odd to mention it now. “That’s nice,” she heard herself say.

“Beth, He’ll come back. We’ll come back. We’ll come back with the car. And we’ll take Junior to the infirmary.”

The tears came so quickly she didn’t have a moment to try to stifle them. Her breath escaped her in a shudder.

“Oh, Theresa, thank you,” she managed. “Thank you…”

Her friend shook her head, and Elizabeth suddenly found her hand squeezed in a firm grasp.

“We can’t lose our boys, Beth,” Theresa murmured. “We’ve lost our men—we won’t lose our boys.”
The front door clicked behind her as she left, and suddenly, the house was still.

When Junior had been a baby, Edward had arrived home one day with a box. A clock kit, to assemble a grandfather clock. It was a nightmare, keeping the baby out of the parts, and Elizabeth lived three weeks in fear that he would crawl to the work area, shove a gear into his eager mouth, and choke to his death. So it had been to her great relief when Edward finally declared the clock complete, and she could freely let their baby crawl throughout the house again.

It had remained the centerpiece in their parlor for all the intervening years. She had measured Junior against it in her mind—just after his first birthday, when he toddled past, barely able to see the pendulum, his tenth birthday, when he’d reached the chimes, his fifteenth, when he’d stood level with the dial.

We’ve lost our men, Theresa had said. We won’t lose our boys.

Settling in with her arms firmly around her son, Elizabeth listened to the steady tick and prayed her friend was right.

~||x||~

The radio in one corner of the armory crackled. It was one of the few rallying points in the place—the flu patients, or at least, those who were able, would crowd around it to hear updates on the war. At any given time, the bodies around the radio might be as many as three deep, and the doctors and nurses would have to gently urge patients back to bed.

This was what Carlisle was doing now, half-carrying, half-dragging a man whose eyes were red and whose fingernail beds were already turning a violent shade of purplish-blue. He caught the slightest bit of the broadcast as he took the man’s arm. The gravelly voice reported that there was to be an offensive against the Hindenburg line—all the Allied forces would begin trying to breach the German offensive in northeastern France.

The war was becoming harder and harder to fight. Farmers recruited into the armies in France and Britain had left food shortages for the wives and children left at home, to say nothing of the food for the soldiers themselves. As the death toll rose, there were fewer regiments available to refresh the exhausted men in the trenches, and although Wilson sent thousands of U.S. boys there every day, the reinforcements were nowhere near enough.

It was a fitting duality, Carlisle thought as he placed a firm hand on his patient’s shoulder and pushed him onto the cot. In France, they fought a war against a physical enemy, who pressed closer and closer in on the country. Men died, more men came to their aid, only to be ripped apart by rifle fire and to drown in the gas. In the chaos that was Chicago, it felt as though a German offensive pressed itself against the windows of the armories and hospitals, claiming life after life as it rolled forward toward some ill-defined goal. And as in Europe, the reinforcements for the front line of this war grew more depleted by the day.

Carlisle was working two positions now, sneaking from one to the other at the change of the light, escaping only every fourth day or so to feed. The armory had no windows and so he could work here during the day, moving from bedside to bedside as he carefully monitored the patients. There were over two hundred of them, in neat rows of cots with a single sheet and blanket apiece.

It seemed they ran out of these every few hours. Some new patient would arrive and be relegated to a cot or even the floor without so much as a bed sheet to cover him. The nurses who volunteered their time boiled the sheets as quickly as possible when new patients left—either because they had become well, or, more often, when they were transferred to the hospital. And every now and again they would lose one or two, patients who slipped away before anyone could notice. This was the saddest, because it was their job to look out for these people, the ones who were so sick they needed to be admitted to the hospitals at once. But they couldn’t do it. There weren’t enough eyes, enough hands. The humans were exhausted.

And though there was no physical reason for this to be the case, Carlisle felt exhausted, too.

“Doctor?”

He looked down. He’d nearly forgotten about the man he had just ushered away from the radio. The man’s lungs were already crackling—not so much that a human would hear without a good stethoscope, but to Carlisle the sound was deafening.

“Doctor, how much longer do I have?”

Carlisle’s eyes closed. He wouldn’t lie—he couldn’t lie, not when so many patients came in and out. He envied the human doctors with their fallible memories, the way they wouldn’t remember the patients they’d lost the week before.

Carlisle remembered them all.

Three hundred and forty-seven, mostly at the hospital, but a dozen and a half here as well, in the two weeks he’d worked here. The woman who had already been widowed and who left five young children with their aunt. The father of four, his body ruined by bathtub gin long before the influenza set in; he hadn’t lasted a day. The young man intent on making it to New York to make his fortune in the stock exchange. He’d come from Iowa, and his mother didn’t even know he was in Chicago. Carlisle had been the one to send the telegram.

And then there were the children. Carlisle claimed to detest children, if anyone asked. This was his excuse for treating them as little as he could. The truth was he couldn’t bear their loss. Losing a human who was old, who had children and grandchildren, who had lived a full life and was happy with his lot, that was one thing. It was almost beautiful, in its own way, and Carlisle could recognize in the peaceful eyes the way he himself would have preferred to leave his life. With younger adults, it was harder, but still there was some redemption—they had lived a while, many had families, they had lived past the age to which Carlisle had lived as a human.

But with children, there was nothing to hold. They hadn’t finished school. They’d never experienced a world which was not run by their parents. They didn’t know what it was to fall in love, or hold a job, or feel as though they contributed to the world themselves. When they died, it was the worst kind of loss, and it was liable to knock Carlisle off-kilter for days.

Here, however, it was utterly unavoidable. For all his supernatural strength and senses, he might as well have been the Angel of Death.

“Doctor? How much longer?”

Carlisle brought himself back to the present and looked down at the patient under his hands. He realized at once that he did not know his patient’s name; he would need to look this up so that he could transfer the man to one of the hospital lists. But there was not a great deal which could be done.

“I’m not sure,” he heard himself whisper. “Not long. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“No,” the man sighed. “Not really.” He rolled away from Carlisle, staring at the seemingly endless rows of cots. His own creaked as he settled himself in, curling into a fetal position beneath the thin blanket.

Carlisle nodded. But as he moved away, he muttered, “I’m sorry” in a voice too low for human ears.

He made his way toward the doors of the armory, straightening blankets and taking inventory of patients as he passed. The nurses tried to keep track of everyone they could, but even clipboards at the ready, they couldn’t keep track of everything. Bed 45 was lying in his own vomit; Carlisle mopped this with a dry rag and promised to return to clean further. Bed 82 had given his blanket to his daughter, Bed 84, and now lay shivering despite the humid air. Bed 107 looked badly in need of hydration.

Making his to-do list, Carlisle reached the end of the rows of cots just as the armory door swung open and a man staggered inside.

This wasn’t uncommon. The influenza weakened even the strongest grown men; they often barely managed to stumble their way in the door. But what made this one different was that this man staggered under the weight of a body; a boy, Carlisle realized at once, his heart sinking. For even though the body in the man’s arms was lanky and tall, it was clearly that of quite a young man. His long, pale arms wrapped loosely around the man’s neck, feet with untied shoes dangled. His head was turned into the man’s collarbone so that all Carlisle could see was a shock of reddish hair.

A shock of reddish hair he recognized.

“Oh no,” he muttered. “Oh, no, no, no.”

It had been what, two weeks? At once, the woman’s face swam before him, the way her eyes had filled with tears as their hands met, the transfer of a few personal effects. The way she’d stood before him, resolute in her need to move forward, already thinking about her son. Her insistence that she would manage to have her husband buried properly.

But she didn’t look that way today. She stood, a little bit behind the man carrying her son, her expression no longer resolute. Those odd green eyes darted from the boy, to the man holding him, to the rows upon rows of influenza patients, and then, finally, to Carlisle.

He heard her gasp from the other side of the room.

Over the centuries, Carlisle had become accustomed to moving at the speed of his human compatriots. It had even come to the point that to do so no longer felt unnatural—his gait was preternaturally smooth, to be sure, but other than that, there was little to reveal that he was out of the ordinary.

Today, however, he cursed the need to move so slowly. He wanted nothing more than to dash across the infirmary, yank the boy into his arms, and lay him on one of the cots. It took only a few seconds for him to stride across the floor, but it might as well have been a year, he was so anxious.

The man began to speak at once. “My friend’s son has fallen ill,” he explained. “This was the closest infirmary.”

Carlisle was already nodding, his eyes fixed not on the boy, but on his mother. She stared at him, the green eyes neither tear-filled nor resolute, not as they had been the last time he’d seen her. Instead, today they were full of questions. He wondered, briefly, if she was feeling the same things he was—wondering what it meant that fate would throw them together twice, in such different places. It was rare, in a city like this, and that was one reason Carlisle enjoyed practicing here. The anonymity protected him, meant that even if a single person suspected he was more than who he pretended to be, it was unlikely he or she would ever encounter him again. No accusations would be leveled, and he would be free simply to disappear.

Not so this time.

The woman was shorter than he by perhaps six or seven inches. But she seemed even smaller tonight, as she stared imploringly up at him.

“Save him,” she said.

Carlisle winced. Hadn’t this been what had gotten him into so much trouble the first time? Pity, anger, his own feelings of helplessness. All these had led him to a promise he’d been utterly incapable of keeping.

He couldn’t do that again.

“I can’t,” he heard himself say. “Mrs. Masen, I can’t—”

Save him,” she repeated, and this time the voice and the eyes were harder. The resolute woman he’d met outside the men’s ward had returned.

“I have faith in you.”

Faith? What was there to have faith in? Overseas, the war raged, the country’s young men came sailing back across the Atlantic in coffins instead of cabins. And at home the war was no better, nor was it any less deadly. And he had already failed this woman once.

But hadn’t he been called to duty? Wasn’t that exactly the point? Working two jobs, nearly nonstop, trying to save as many lives as he could manage? It was a different front line, but Carlisle stood on it, nonetheless.

Elizabeth Masen’s eerie green eyes still stared up at him, and some part of him found himself nodding.

“I’ll do my best,” he whispered. “That’s what I can offer. My best.”

“Your best will do,” she answered.

Reaching to the man, Carlisle pulled the boy into his own arms, taking care to feign a stagger as the weight was transferred. His skin seared; a high fever had already settled in. He groaned, his heavy head finding its way onto Carlisle’s bicep.

That day at Cook County replayed in Carlisle’s mind, the way Elizabeth had nodded first to her husband and then to her son, linking their names. He turned away from the mother and began scouting for an empty cot as he addressed the boy.

“Edward? I’m Dr. Cullen, and I’m going to take care of you.”

 

§ 2 Responses to 11. Infantryman"

  • foufymaus says:

    Oh my word.
    This chapter brought me to tears. Just the thought of young Edward grieving the loss of his father. The fact that he stopped doing the things that made him a young man, just primed my tear ducts to activate. LOL Then you hit me with the imagery of young Edward with his father’s pocket watch and lighter. *sniffle* Yea, i admit it i cried.

    The heartache of Elizabeth as she heard her only son cry at night. Wow, you definitely can see the stoic vampire in training here. I can see the parallel between this young Edward to the one in New Moon and the rest of the series.

    I like the fact that it also foreshadows how almost overprotective he is toward his mother. Edward in that era would have had to take on responsibilities way beyond his years. The fact that he willingly took over the family finances and at the same time his his own grief spoke to the fact that this is a trait that is also brought forth in the books. You see it as early as the blood incident during Biology class. He too was feeling like he had to take care of Bella, even as he was hiding the fact that he was a vampire.

    As always AWESOME update. Truly could be considered part of canon. The emotional tone and reactions of each character is spot on! I loved it.

    Thanks for the update.

  • Tina says:

    I think the thing that is hardest about this chapter is that Elizabeth thought she could protect her son – and all the while she was trying to protect him from the wrong thing. It’s heartbreaking to think about how much she wanted to help him when he got sick, how she begged Carlisle to help him.

    The image of the friend carrying Edward into the ‘clinic’, and the fact that Carlisle thought of him as a child, brings to light the fact that Edward wasn’t an adult yet. And he never will be. He will forever be a teen, all gangly legs and arms, and never quite filling out completely. And prone to teenage behavior.

    As always, you make me think about these characters in a different light.

    Thank you!

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