14. Night Watchman

Chicago, Illinois
October, 1918

“Mother, go home.”

Junior snapped at Elizabeth when she stroked his hair for what must have been the thousandth time since she’d arrived to the hospital. The first few days that Edward had been here, she’d yearned for him to be awake, but she’d been learning lately that her son’s temper had a habit of flaring right along with his fever.

“They—don’t want—you—”

His voice halted between violent coughs, but he rolled away as she tried to wipe his chin. “You’ve—heard them.” Another cough. “Go home.”

“Edward—”

But he jerked away from her hand, rolling so that the cot’s springs creaked. Every bed here had its own small cubby, cut off from the one next to it by a draped sheet. “To slow the spread,” the doctors said, but she suspected it was more for appearance than anything. The hanging sheet her son faced was a strange, brilliant white, grossly out of place alongside the bedclothes stained with mucous and blood.

And Edward yelled and cursed, and refused her. Insisted she follow the orders of the doctors. Rolled away from her as he did now.

But the truth was her child was terrified.

And so she had no intention of leaving his side.

It was the same here as it had been at the infirmary. The nurses and the doctors told Elizabeth to go home, that they would put her contact information with Edward, and that she would be telegrammed at once if there was substantial change in his condition. She should stay home. Draw the blinds, and stay away from others.

Make sure that at least someone in her family survived.

She didn’t waste time telling them it wouldn’t be worth it; that she was barren, that her whole life was these two men with their identical names and identical looks. Or at least that it had been until that awful day—had it been only three weeks ago?—that the young, light-haired doctor had delivered that awful news.

He had been the one who transferred them here within only two days of their arrival at the armory. Junior clung to his health, and nearly seemed to be improving, wandering unsteadily from his bed when he grew bored of lying down. He’d constantly needed to be pulled back from the far reaches of the armory, where he went to play craps or read the news with other patients, ignoring his own inability to keep a steady stride.

The nurses, Elizabeth thought with a chuckle, must have been glad to see such a pest go.

Here at Cook County, however, the younger Edward Masen had become much more sedate. He grew weaker by the minute, it seemed. A body which had once been able to keep still now trembled with fever, and his lips and nail beds were beginning to turn that pale shade of blue she recognized from his father’s face and hands three weeks before. Even if he’d wanted to, he lacked the strength to wander across the ward by himself, and the boy who four days ago had driven the nurses crazy was gone.

Or to be more accurate, he was dying.

Elizabeth was terrified. And so was Junior. But the older Edward had taught his son bravado, not fear, and today, bravado was taking the form of anger.

Running a hand absently over his back, Elizabeth felt each vertebra of his spine. Her Edward had lost several pounds. His face appeared gaunt, and his limbs, already gangly as they waited for his body to grow into adulthood, were now spindly and fragile. He had never been exactly filled-out, but he now appeared starving—which was little wonder as he hadn’t managed to keep down even what little food he ate since arriving at the armory.

Edward coughed. Except for the timbre, the deep pitch that was the result of a chest that was many times over larger than it once had been, it could have been the same, wet, gurgle-cough that had greeted her the day he was born. His lips reddened a little—with blood, she realized in horror. She reached for the rag which some nurse had hung on the post of his cot and wiped, her hand trembling.

How stupid, she thought. She’d worried about that infernal war, and sending him off to be one of Wilson’s boys overseas. She’d obsessed over it. Argued with Senior over it. And it had all been for nothing. Her son would die here, in a cot in a hospital in the hometown he’d left only a handful of times. He would never see Europe—he would never so much as see Ohio. He would die without a soldier’s glory, or without knowing a woman’s love. He would die without a high school diploma, let alone the law degree Senior had always intended for his son to have.

The rag disappeared from her hand. Startled, she looked up into the eyes of a woman. A nurse, who carried in one hand a basket of fresh rags, white and warm, and in the other, a hamper for collection.

“Now you shouldn’t be here, ma’am,” she said as she dropped the bloodied rag into the hamper, but even though the voice was authoritative, it was kind. “We don’t want you sick right alongside your boy here.”

Elizabeth looked away from the nurse and back to Edward, running a hand through his coppery waves. “I have nothing left to lose,” she murmured, her breath hitching.

It was the first time she’d said this thought aloud. The nurse stopped what she was doing, and the two baskets settled onto the floor with a scratching noise as she knelt next to Elizabeth’s stool. For a long moment, neither of them said anything, both just staring at Edward’s chest as it rose and fell.

“Your husband?” the nurse asked finally.

“The influenza took him two weeks ago.”

“And your other children?”

“We were only able to have Edward.” Elizabeth shot the nurse a look. Her face was kind and sad, and for a moment Elizabeth nearly told her the story of Margaret, of how her son had almost had a sibling. Of how she still carried the terrible weight of a mother who’d already had one child die.

The nurse nodded. “I understand.”

“Do you have children?”

“Three,” she answered. “Billy is the oldest—he’s thirty-five. Got two of his own. Joyce is his sister, she’s thirty. She went to school to become a teacher, got married late. Her boy is just two right now and she’s getting ready for the next one. And Tommy is the baby. Twenty-two.” When Elizabeth gave her a curious look, she added with a chuckle, “Tommy was a mistake. But the best kind.”

“Is he in the war?”

The nurse shook her head. “No, thank Heaven. God gave him a club foot. Kept him out of the draft. Kept my heart from breaking.” She reached down as she said so, feeling Edward’s forehead for the fever, stroking his bangs a bit as she did so.

He grunted.

Elizabeth glanced at the bed. Aside from the six pounds or so gone from his body thanks to the influenza, her son’s body was perfect. No club feet. Strong muscles. Legs that could run a few miles. Nothing to keep him from rushing headlong to his death.

No matter which side of the Atlantic he died on.

A hand squeezed her shoulder, and Elizabeth realized that the nurse had been watching her watch Edward.

“He wanted to go,” Elizabeth said quietly. “And I keep wondering, if I’d let him—” The tears welling in her eyes cut her off before she could finish.

Another squeeze. “If you let him go over there, would he not be here?”

She nodded.

“You can’t think like that, Mother,” the nurse said quietly. “Wasn’t there nothing to be done about this.”

The wet cough came again; the large body contracted and released. He was asleep, it seemed. The nurse handed her a new rag, and she used this clean one to wipe away the fresh bit of blood and spit that gathered at the edges of her son’s lips.

“How much longer?” she whispered, when her son had gone still again.

The nurse shook her head. “We don’t know that. Some, they go right away. Some, they hang on for days. And some, well—they get all the way to looking like your boy, and they get up and go on their way home in a few days anyways.”

There was another scritch-scritch as the baskets went back onto wide hips, and the nurse squeezed Elizabeth’s shoulder once more. For a moment they both stared at Edward, at the way his chest now rose and fell evenly despite his rattling, wet breath. Elizabeth took his hand. Despite his fever, it was cool to the touch—as though he were becoming a corpse from the outside in. Tears welled in her eyes.

“You go on and stay here,” the nurse said quietly. “I’ll tell the doctor when he makes his rounds.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth muttered.

The nurse turned to move to the bed across the narrow aisle.

“Wait…”

She turned.

“What is your name?”

The woman gave a small smile. “Dorothy,” she answered. “You can call me Dorothy.”

Elizabeth nodded. “Thank you, Dorothy.” She gestured to the bed. “I’m Elizabeth, and this is my Edward.”

A slow nod.

“Well, I’ll be praying for you and your Edward, Mrs. Elizabeth. God bless you both.”

Elizabeth listened to her footsteps as she made her way down the ward—a few steps, the baskets on the floor, a creak of bedsprings, more footsteps. Slowly they grew quieter and quieter, until the only sounds on the ward were the sounds she was used to—rattling breath, the occasional groan, the clang of a bedpan against the edge of a cot. But importantly she listened to the steady breathing of the child before her. Interrupted by coughs, and every bit as raspy as any other patient in the ward, but still, very importantly, there. Steady. Ongoing.

When he’d been little, and ill, she had sung to him. The old Irish lullabies, the ones her mother had sung to her, and of which Edward Senior made fun.

At first, it seemed her voice wouldn’t come. It rasped a bit at first, and she had to swallow several times. But then it did, in a whisper so quiet there was hardly a melody at all.

Sleep my child and peace attend thee,

All through the night

Guardian angels God will send thee,

All through the night

Her voice shook as she made her way through the stanza, but she did, and kept right on going. Edward’s breathing came evenly, almost in time to the song. In. Out. In. Out. Cough. In and out again.

And as the sounds of the ward washed over them both, Elizabeth Masen sang to her son and stroked his back.

~||x||~

Singing.

So faint it was almost impossible even for Carlisle to hear, and yet—no, it was unmistakable.

Singing.

It was unheard of. Quite literally, he thought, and chuckled to himself as he strode down the hall. The influenza wards were filled with many sounds. The squeak of bedsprings as patients rolled from side to side. The hacking retch of stomach bile and blood being vomited onto the floor. The murmur of nurses as they delivered prognoses in hushed tones. The clip of the doctors’ good shoes against the wooden floors.

But no one sang.

The singing was coming from the second-floor men’s ward, and Carlisle’s feet moved him toward it, even though he’d made rounds there only a few hours earlier. The closer he got, the more distinctly he could hear it—still too far away for human ears to manage to hear the whispered verse, he could make out a woman’s voice. And by the time he was within a few yards of the door to the ward, he recognized the voice itself.

His stomach wrenched, leaving him to question for a moment why it was that his body had such human responses to an emotion like guilt. Because guilt was exactly what this was.

The voice was the voice of the red-haired woman. No one had succeeded in getting her to leave her child. He had warned her, the other doctors had warned her, the nurses had warned her. The disease was highly contagious, they said. She would certainly contract it, staying around all these who were ill. And what if she became ill and died and her son recovered? What if she left him motherless?

But she’d stood firm. If it came to it, her son would be all right on his own, she said. He knew how to manage a home, and he would do just fine without his mother.

It was an overly optimistic thought, in Carlisle’s opinion.

The boy—Edward, the same as his late father—didn’t fare well in the late night, the only time the nurses and doctors could manage to wrench his mother from his side. The other doctors couldn’t explain it. They charted his temperature, and measured his breathing, and looked for the cyanosis setting in. They attributed the young Edward Masen’s circadian decline and rebound to some strange goings-on within his body that they couldn’t quite pin down.

It was all about the science, nowadays. The doctors rushed around looking for unsanitary procedures, people too close to each other, unwashed hands. Bathed in knowledge and books and research, they had long since embraced the euphoria of knowledge and forgotten the wisdom that came from ignorance—that intangible healing power that a mother had over her child.

The singing stopped as the door to the ward opened, and the green eyes searched for the door. He knew she could not make him out as easily as he could her, but he imagined she might, at least, see his hair. And she seemed to, because she showed no surprise when he skipped the half-dozen intervening beds and came straight to her and her boy.

His condition had worsened, Carlisle realized at once, as he laid a hand on the sweating forehead. The boy turned his face at once, seeking the coolness of Carlisle’s touch. He let his hand linger there a moment, as though he needed more than a split-second to ascertain that no, the fever was not breaking. The boy’s teeth chattered as he shook from chill. But as he turned, Carlisle saw the eyes—those strange green eyes that he shared with his mother—and they were still bright. That was the last part to go. You could watch for days, listen to the lungs rasping for breath, see the lips turn from red to purple to blue. But it wasn’t until the eyes went dull that the body was close to giving in.

And Edward Masen simply wasn’t there yet.

“You needn’t have stopped singing,” Carlisle said as he bent over the bed, but Elizabeth only leaned in anxiously.

“Doctor, please…” was all she managed, but Carlisle understood.

“Edward?” he asked.

The boy looked up at him with baleful eyes.

“How are you?”

He tried to shake his head, but he wound up coughing instead, his whole body convulsing and causing the bed to shake. A moment later, he coughed so violently that blood escaped his lips and dribbled down his chin.

“Oh, Edward,” his mother said, reaching for the rag she’d hung on the edge of his bed, but the boy pulled away, wiping his own mouth on the pillow.

“Make my mother go home,” he whined. “Please, Doctor.”

At once, Elizabeth Masen burst into tears, putting her head in her hands and crying with such force that the stool she sat on clattered against the floor.

Carlisle reached to her laying a hand on her shoulder.

But what could he say?

He was reading as much as he could on the virus, although no one truly had time to write anything down. Even the institutions—Harvard, Hopkins, Mayo—they couldn’t manage to keep up with the research. And so Carlisle had been reading everything he could find about any other form of influenza. Everything the doctors understood about what the virus was, how it spread, how it was attacked. He had carefully traced the progression of this virus—they called it Spanish Influenza, as though it came from overseas, but the nearest he could tell, it had its origins in the midwest. And it attacked the healthy every bit as virulently, if not more so, than it did the weak.

Carlisle knew all this. But none of that knowledge let him know what he was supposed to do in an instance like this. There were no papers on what to do with a mother who sat before a child, her only child, who would imminently lose his life.

“Please…” The boy coughed up blood again, and again refused his mother’s trembling hand. Carlisle took the rag from her, and when he reached to wipe the boy’s face, he grunted, but did not turn away.

This only had the effect of making Elizabeth look more defeated, however.

“I don’t believe it’s you,” Carlisle said quietly. How could it be, when her son fared so poorly without her? He might be drenched in the obstinacy of youth, but even the boy himself must have noticed that his health was better with his mother at his side.

“Then why—”

“Because I’m dying!” the boy snapped.

This was said with such tremendous force it surprised them both, and prompted a fresh round of tears from Mrs. Masen.

“Shhh.” Carlisle wasn’t sure where the hushing noise had even come from. It certainly wasn’t something he’d ever done to a patient or his mother before. He stopped himself short. What did he do now? Pat her shoulder? Offer her a hug? It was one thing to touch her son, whose fever raged so severely that he would never notice the oddity of Carlisle’s cool hands. It would be quite another to have physical contact with the boy’s mother.

“Mrs. Masen, would you be willing to step out of the ward? Not forever,” he added when he saw the stricken look cross her face, “but just for a moment, so that I might speak to your son?”

For a long moment, she didn’t move. But finally, she nodded, scooting her stool away from the cot and standing. She began to walk toward the aisle, but she’d reached only the end of the bed sheet which hung between Edward and the young man to his right when she turned back around. Saying nothing, she leaned over the bed and pressed her lips to the sweating forehead, holding them there. Edward’s eyes closed as his mother kissed him, and for once, he was still. Then his mother pulled away from him and disappeared, and Carlisle listened to her footsteps move further and further, becoming part of the strange symphony of sounds of sickness that echoed across the ward.

When he heard the door open and close, he turned to the boy.

“Edward—” he began, but the boy cut him off.

“When—will it—happen?” he asked between coughs.

“I’m sorry?”

“When will—I die?”

How many times had he been asked this question, Carlisle wondered. By men and women at the armory, by children far too young to lose their lives. And the problem was, it was a question without an answer. He’d admitted patients who looked as though they merely suffering a mild cold, and by the time he reached them on rounds some hours later, they had already expired. And then there were patients like Edward, who by all accounts should’ve been dead the day he came in, and yet who by some miracle clung to life with their fingernails.

What made the difference, he wondered? Tenacity? Stubborn will?

Love?

“We don’t know,” Carlisle answered, and immediately, he wondered at his use of we. Who else was involved?

“I don’t know,” he corrected himself.

The boy looked away for a moment, and when he spoke again, it was almost to his curtain.

“I don’t—want—my mother—” He didn’t finish this last, bursting into another coughing fit.

“I know.” Carlisle pulled up the stool next to Edward’s cot, and perched himself on it in the same way that Elizabeth had. “You’re her child, Edward. It’s extremely difficult for a parent to watch her child die.”

“But she’s my mother!” No break here. It was as though the sheer force of his statement managed to keep his coughing at bay. The voice was unsteady and high, as though the young man were slipping away into a petulant child.

This was the irony, Carlisle thought. Parents didn’t want to see their children die. But children thought their parents were invincible, or at least, that they should be. Elizabeth Masen was so hell-bent on seeing her son cured that she’d forgotten that he had every bit the same desire to see her live on without him.

He coughed again and went for his pillow. Before he’d even thought it, Carlisle’s hand reached out and stopped the boy’s chin. Had he moved at his full speed? He wasn’t sure. But Edward didn’t seem to notice it if he had, and in either event, he accepted Carlisle wiping his face before he pulled away again.

“Make her—stay away.”

“I can’t,” Carlisle said quietly. “Your health improves when she’s here.”

“Damn my health!”

Carlisle winced.

“You—take care—of her!”

“Edward—”

This last outburst seemed to have taken it out of Edward, and he coughed uninterrupted for nearly a minute. Carlisle slung an arm under his shoulders, helping him to sit upright. Spit and blood and perhaps a bit of vomit, Carlisle wasn’t entirely sure, dribbled down the boy’s chin. He wiped this away as the thin body heaved with each cough. It seemed an eternity before Edward was able to take a deep breath. And as soon as he did, he used it to argue again.

“My father”—a gasp—”wouldn’t want”—another—”her to die.”

Ah, and here was the real fear, Carlisle thought, squeezing Edward’s shoulder in sympathy. You name a boy after his father, you give him expectations; shoes to fill. He had noticed the lighter which he’d removed from the boy’s trousers that first day at the armory, the same worn metal, the same initials carved into the lid. Carlisle remembered giving it to Elizabeth Masen, the day he told her that her husband had died. And now the son had inherited the lighter, and the temperament, and the obligation to protect his mother.

“It’s not your job to protect your mother,” he muttered, but he knew these words would fall on deaf ears. The boy was strong. Even in the face of death. Even only seventeen.

A human doctor wouldn’t have seen the brilliant way the green eyes shone in the dark, the way they caught the lamplight. The way, in that instant, it was as though the fever had gone. The eyes were clear, and Carlisle could make out each eyelash from beneath which the boy gave him a baleful expression.

“Please?”

Again, was Carlisle’s immediate thought. Again this family would catch him by surprise, tempting him to make promises he couldn’t keep. First a woman’s plea to save her husband, then her plea to save her son, and now the son’s plea to prevent his mother dying by the same way that he would.

And so he offered to the son the same answer he had offered to the mother, four days—had it only been that long?—ago.

“I’ll do my best,” he said.

The boy nodded, and rolled over to his other side. He coughed again, but this time, turned away.

Standing from the stool, Carlisle hung the little rag on the edge of the cot for the nurse, or for Elizabeth Masen, if she managed her way back in. But when he reached the end of the aisle, he stopped. There was an odd feeling burning in his stomach; one he hadn’t felt in centuries. A strange thickness; a feeling as if parts of him could break.

Crying, he realized. He was holding back crying.

Over the boy? Over his mother? Over the lost father?

Over his own sheer ineptitude?

He leaned against the wall next the door, letting the sounds of the ward wash over him—rasping breaths, wet coughs, fevered moans. He could make out the boy’s sighs among them—higher pitched, shallower, for he was so skinny.

There was, however, no more singing.

How many patients had he lost in his lifetime, Carlisle wondered. He could add them up, he was sure, if he took the time to comb back through the memories scattered through his mind like junk in a dank cellar. He had deliberately stopped counting the influenza patients, and although a portion of his brain was no doubt accumulating the tally, the number was growing too large for him to allow it to weigh on him.

There had been so many over the years. So why was it that he felt this odd pain? Perhaps it had been the singing, or the way that Elizabeth stroked her son’s back. Perhaps it was whatever it had been that drew him to them in the first place. Or his foolish promise to save the father, given in haste and stupidity, the one he hadn’t been able to keep and the guilt over which gnawed at him.

I don’t want him to die.

The thought startled him. But he never wanted a patient to die, Carlisle thought at once. He always wanted to save them, because wasn’t that who he was? His whole purpose for all of this, for living alone, for wandering, for denying everything about his own nature.

Of course he wanted to save them.

But it wasn’t only that, he realized, as he reached the last beds on the ward. This wasn’t just not wanting humans to die.

He didn’t want these humans to die.

It was an odd feeling. He was so careful not to get close. Not to care too much, because by definition, humans were mortal. They couldn’t grow close to him, and so he didn’t grow close to them. And so he cared about them en masse; he saved humans, but not people.

Had that been his problem? Sitting alone in his apartment, with his artwork, and books. No one could know what he was, but did that mean that he had to never allow another to know who he was?

And he liked them. The mother with her insistent care for her husband and son. The boy with his fiery temper and stubborn protectiveness of his mother. The fate that was this Great Influenza had thrown them together twice.

Carlisle wanted Edward Masen and his mother to live.

It was freeing, though terrifying, to admit. At once his step quickened. He would tell her that, he thought, as he put his hand on the doorknob. He would tell her that he was invested in Edward, as much as she was. He would try to keep her safe by keeping her away from the hospital, but he would keep his promise to them both.

He would do everything he could to keep them both alive.

The door opened easily in his hand, and he stepped into the brighter lighting of the corridor outside the ward. And at once, he stopped short.

Elizabeth Masen lay in the hall, unmoving.

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§ 2 Responses to 14. Night Watchman"

  • D. Poe says:

    I’ve missed this story. Great job on this new chapter!

  • Sisterglitch says:

    When I read your stories, their is the most delicious push and pull going on. It’s pleasurable but painful, and yet again I’m weeping. I want to read quickly because I want to know what happens. I want to swallow the chapter whole, but I can’t because I keep lingering, savoring, reading and then re-reading sentences… having little epiphanies… as you answer questions I didn’t think to ask.

    Carlisle’s turning of Edward is usually skimmed over. We love Edward, so of course we should understand that Carlisle could love him… but it’s not as simple as “love”.

    You show how Carlisle had to first self-analyze then actually change his thinking (a rare and tough transition for vampires) to get to the place in his head where he would even consider changing a human. He doesn’t fully understand why this human is different than others, but you make it so exciting to witness Carlisle’s rigid (and hopeless) standards being thrown by this particular woman and this particular boy.

    Yes, I know Carlisle’s motivations for turning Edward have been analyzed to death. Was his motivation ultimately selfish or unselfish? Was it an action of caring or acquisition? Will it be the benificent vampire’s one selfish act? Can’t wait to see where you as-subtly-as-ever take us with this.

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