17. Invisible Man

Chicago, Illinois
October, 1918

The streets below Carlisle’s flat were eerily quiet, reminding him of the days when the city would wake up to a blanket of snowfall; no cars, no carriages, no men and women off to the factories, no children off to school. Just an eerie calm, a street utterly undisturbed.

Were it not the cause of the silence, he would almost call it peaceful.

Above his bed sat an old clock; its maker dating back to just after Carlisle had arrived in the new world. It had been one of his first purchases at the time, and now it had seen him through thousands of miles of travel, dozens of small flats and houses, through hospital after hospital and disease after disease. Cholera, scarlet fever, tuberculosis…

Now, once again, it ticked out the hours until Carlisle could return to his work.

Once, he’d gone to the armory to while away these hours. But now he was too scattered, his mind constantly flitting back to Cook County Hospital, to the red-haired woman and her recalcitrant son.

“Fool woman,” the orderly had called Elizabeth, as he helped Carlisle put her on a stretcher the night she fell ill. “No sense. How many of us told her to go home?”

Carlisle only shook his head.

“He’s her child,” he answered.

Her only child at that.

Elizabeth Masen’s body rolled easily onto the stretcher. She was lighter than she looked; in hindsight, probably evidence that she’d suffered influenza symptoms for days without acknowledging them or speaking about them. To keep her son from worrying even more, Carlisle suspected.

Sometimes, there was a very thin line between bravery and foolishness.

“Where do we take her? The women’s ward?”

At first, Carlisle had nodded, but then he remembered the room on the second floor. A room usually used for quarantine, but which in the face of this widespread contagion, had remained empty. Just scarcely enough room for two beds and a lamp while still leaving room for a doctor or nurse to enter. And so he moved the boy and his mother in together, where he could look in on them both at once.

At least if Elizabeth Masen or her child were to die, they wouldn’t die alone.

And so now instead of working, Carlisle came home only to hide, to count down the hours until he could return.

Leaning against the cool wall, Carlisle closed his eyes and took himself back almost two months. To that night, at the very outset of this horrible disease, when that little girl was shot. Here, right below his window, in the street that now sat still. When he sat alone in his office, singeing his skin in candle flame. When he stood in the storage room, hoping to snuff himself with ether.

And then came the flu, and with it, the woman. With first her husband, and then her child, the scrawny seventeen-year-old with the fiery temper and a sense of obligation that easily matched Carlisle’s own.

Yes, he’d promised her. And yes, all things considered, it had been a foolish thing to promise.

But who was he, if he was only average? Only able to do the same things every other doctor was able to do?

Useless.

The mattress was in two before he even recognized he’d attacked, the bed frame mangled almost beyond recognition, the bedclothes flung into a pile on the dilapidated floorboards.

At once, he froze, flattening himself against the wall. He had learned, over the years, to incorporate the habits of humans, the way they would fidget, run their hands through their hair, shift their weight, cross and uncross their legs. His kind had no need of such things; he could sit for all eternity in the same position with no consequences. But these things had become habit for him, so much so that he often did them even when no human would see them. To become so still felt odd.

Had he cried out? Had anyone heard the noise?

The clock ticked.

No one came.

Alone.

Because who would notice him? Who would care, if the blond doctor with the strange eyes disappeared? They would chalk it up to the influenza, assume him buried in one of the mass graves surrounding the city.

He could run. Except…

Elizabeth Masen would care. She would see that he did not return. She would inquire after him.

Elizabeth Masen and her son noticed him.

Perhaps that was why he felt so much like running.

Just seven years ago in Columbus, Ohio, there had been a girl nearly the age of Mrs. Masen’s son. She, too, had been stubbornly brave, just like the Masens—ignoring the fractured bone which had ripped through her leg in favor of conversation with him. What he did, how her body would heal itself, what the effects of the laudanum would be. She spoke to him, not in the deferent way that so many patients did, but as though Carlisle were already her friend.

She asked his first name, and when he gave it, proclaimed it to be odd.

“I believe it was a surname,” Carlisle answered, laughing. “Perhaps my mother’s.”

“Perhaps?” the girl replied. “Do you not know?”

He looked away then, pretending to be very interested in the plaster which he used to set the bone. “She died giving birth to me,” he replied. “I did not know her, and my father never spoke of her.”

“Oh.”

“Esme is not exactly a common name either,” he commented a moment later, still not looking up from her leg. “One wonders why you are not a Mary, or a Margaret.”

The girl giggled. “I don’t like common names.”

“So then you like mine.”

“I like yours. I’ve never met a Carlisle before.”

“Nor I an Esme.”

She beamed. They both did.

Her whole appointment had taken, what, maybe a three-quarters of an hour? But it had been more than enough to frighten him. Unseen had always been his method. He would arrive in a town, and be known only as the doctor. And if people became too familiar with him, he would leave. Familiarly was risk; risk meant the Brothers in Italy; and the Brothers meant death…

The following afternoon, he bought a train ticket out of Ohio.

That was what would happen to Elizabeth and her son, also. They would die…on the one hand, a good thing, for it meant they wouldn’t tell of the strange doctor who had met them twice and cared for them. Yet on the other, it meant he would lose them.

The girl in Ohio. The boy with red hair. The mother, with her striking eyes and insistent pleas.

He would lose them. Again.

Carlisle delivered another solid kick to the bed frame; it groaned and split into even smaller pieces.

The clock ticked another hour before Carlisle grew tired of the mess. It was an overcast day, so he hoisted the mangled bed frame and the ruined mattress over his shoulder and hauled them two miles to the dump casting them atop furniture and destroyed clothing. The debris onto which he flung his own was singed and blackened, an attempt to rid items of the influenza. The burned items were lighter than those which were not, and the wind lifted pieces of them up and sent them fluttering around, turning them into a murder of sinister crows. He stood and watched them rise on the updraft, only to come fluttering back down again on the pile of trash.

This was what humans were to him, he thought. A glimmer of hope, a fleeting moment of flight. Rising on an updraft, then falling, slowly, back to earth.

Humans all died. That was their very nature.

The walk back to his building took him through streets full of homes. Most were darkened; perhaps the families which inhabited them were all lost to the influenza. Or maybe they simply had drawn the curtains against the world, insulating themselves from the terror of the outside.

But he saw a flickering light from one, and as he drew nearer, he could see the light came from a fireplace in the drawing room, flickering merrily and warming the home against the cruel October winds. Inside a family sat by its light, crowded around a low table, on which sat a game of some sort, checkers, it appeared. A young girl, a boy, a mother, a father.

They were laughing.

In the midst of all this silence and darkness and death, a family sat, firelight dancing on their faces, and they were laughing.

Outside in the cold wind, alone on the street, Carlisle stared in longingly and began to cry.

~||x||~

The dirt wall was nearly four feet over Elizabeth’s head. The trench smelled sweet, an odd mixture of wet earth and men’s sweat. She heard boots shuffling back and forth, hushed whispers. Were the German troops advancing? They were across the field, wherever across the field was.

In the darkness, she couldn’t see. Her heart sped as she scanned the rows of men. Dozens, down here—how large was this unit, exactly? Their uniforms blended with the earth so that she could scarcely make out one young man from another.

And young men they were. Eighteen. Twenty. One was small, skinny. If she’d had money to bet, she would have guessed him to be no older than sixteen.

A year younger than her Edward.

The clacking of shuffling rifles, the click-click-click of preparing for rapid fire filled her ears as she moved strangely unnoticed between the men.

“The Germans advance!” a young man hollered, galloping unsteadily through the small crowd. “We see their shell fire!”

As though merely saying it made it so, a fountain of dirt launched into the air six feet away, the deep boom of the hand grenade causing the ground to vibrate. Some of the boys screamed. Others clutched at their ears.

The air came alive with the sounds of fire—individual shots from rifles, the rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun, the deep, tympanic blast of a second grenade.

A deep voice shouted, “Go, men, go!”

All around her, boys began scrambling up the side of the trench, and the air became a flurry of boots and falling dirt. And as they surfaced into the field, at once came the sounds of more screaming, war-whoops, return fire. More fountains of dirt as grenades flew in both direction.

The boys throwing themselves out of the trench gave Elizabeth more room to run. She could feel her heart beating in her throat as she made her way through them—this one, no, too short; that one, no, blond hair. Each boy, one after the next, scrambling out of the trenches and into sunlight and shell fire.

“Edward!” she cried out. “Teddy! Edward!”

But no answer came.

At last, the right amount of sunlight shifted its way into the trench, and she saw it; the glimmer of red hair, the little bit of herself in her child’s coloring. His hand was outstretched, reaching for his comrade’s, ready to hoist himself out into open battle.

A grenade whizzed through the air and exploded behind them.

He turned.

“Edward!”

“Mother!” His voice came out high-pitched, strangled. “Mother get out of here!”

“No!” The tears dripped down her chin—when had she begun to cry? “No, baby, please! Please come with me! Stay with me! Stay with me, I’ll save you!”

He turned toward her, and for a moment she saw him, standing there upright, his gun over his shoulder, one foot already lifted onto the makeshift wooden ladder embedded in the dirt.

But he’d paused, and that was enough for her to close the distance, to reach out with her hand and grab his. Sweat, dirt, tears…

And then the trench exploded around them, blasting her backwards and tossing her child into the air like a rag doll.

“Teddy!” she screamed. “Edward, no! Edward! Edward!”

“Mama…” came the feeble reply. It sounded weak, injured…and very close…

“Please, Mrs. Masen, it is quite all right,” said another. “Wake up, Mrs. Masen. Edward is right here.”

The shell fire faded; the trench disappeared. The smell of sweat and dirt left her nostrils, replaced with the sharpness of antiseptic, the coppery scent of blood…

The hospital.

She was not in Europe. Edward was not either. There were no Germans, no rifles, no machine guns, no grenades.

But Edward was dying just as surely.

A cool cloth was placed on her forehead, and water dripped from it down her temples and her nose, making a puddle on the pillow beneath her head.

“It’s all right,” a voice told her. “It’s all right. Only a dream, ma’am. The fever does that, but it’s only a dream.”

She fought her way out from the cloth, and pulled herself into a sitting position. The room swam. But she could steady herself just enough to see, curled up next to her on the matching cot, her son’s lanky body. It was Edward who had replied “Mama,” but whether he’d even truly heard her, she couldn’t tell—his eyelids fluttered as though he was asleep, but his body still convulsed with the shivers of fever.

Did he see the same horrors in his delirium?

She struggled to swing her legs over the edge of the bed.

“Now, that’s not a good idea, ma’am,” said the nurse, but Elizabeth shushed her, reaching out for Edward’s shoulder. She ran her hand over it, feeling the bones through his thin shirt. He’d lost so much weight.

“I thought I’d lost you,” she whispered.

“You didn’t lose him,” said the nurse, patting Elizabeth’s hand. “He’s right here, just as always.”

Elizabeth ran her hand over Edward’s back, feeling each of the little knobs of his spine. She had done this so often when he had been a baby; running her hands over the little back. It amazed her, then, that this fully formed little human body had come from her; that the squalling red-faced creature was her creation. His perfection had floored her.

It still did.

“Did he…was that him who replied?” she asked the nurse, and the nurse nodded.

“Heard you crying out for him, I believe. He doesn’t want to upset you any more than you do him. But please, Mrs. Masen. The doctor worked hard to make it so that you and your Edward could be here together. Please take care of yourself, too, and don’t hurt yourself taking care of him.”

A hand gently pressed her body back toward the cot and the bed sheets, and at once she began to cough again, feeling the sick, wet feeling of blood and phlegm drawing their way upward. The nurse gave her a rag to cough into; it turned pink.

“There you are,” the nurse answered sweetly. “Go on and lie back, and I’ll see to it that your boy gets his care.” Hands reached out and arranged a blanket over her body—when had that appeared, Elizabeth wondered. She’d given her blanket to Edward last night.

It wasn’t until she was fully back in her own bed, her eyes no longer examining her child, that she recognized the nurse. The robust woman with the kind smile, who’d sat with Edward that night when Elizabeth herself had fallen ill.

“Nurse Dorothy,” she said, but her voice came out as a mumble instead of the clear address she’d intended. The woman seemed to have made it a point to check on the Masens; in their two days in this room, Elizabeth couldn’t remember having seen any other nurses enter.

Of course, she had also just been at war in a trench.

Elizabeth gestured toward Edward. “How…is he?” she managed.

Nodding, the woman laid a hand on Edward’s forehead and neck, opening his eyelids to gaze at his eyes. Her expression remained somber.

“He’s still here, Mother,” she said. “He’s warm, but he’s still here.” She tugged something toward Elizabeth’s bed—Edward’s arm, Elizabeth realized. She felt her own fingers being opened, and her son’s palm slid against hers.

“There. You stay in bed, but hold his hand, so that he’ll know his mother is here.”

The room went blurry as Elizabeth’s eyes filled with tears.

“Thank you,” she managed.

“Take care of your boy,” the nurse said. “And I will, also.” She placed a cool rag on Elizabeth’s forehead, and another on Edward’s.

“The doctor?”

“I can go get a doctor if you wish,” Dorothy answered.

No, not any doctor, Elizabeth thought. The doctor. The one with the soulful eyes. Their doctor.

“No…Doctor Cullen.”

The nurse smiled. “He’ll be on shift in an hour or two, Mother.” She patted Elizabeth’s hand. “I’ll tell him to come right here. But he’ll do that anyway, I imagine. He’s taken to you both.”

She moved from Edward’s bed to Elizabeth’s and straightening the covers.

“It’s good for him,” she added quietly after a moment. “Has trouble growing to care about people, I think. He’s a strong man; wise, like he’s lived a lifetime already.” She chuckled. “Scares some folk, I think. He knows too much. But he’s afraid of people. He won’t get close to them. He’s careful.”

She pulled the blanket up to Elizabeth’s shoulders, patting them.

“But he’s not careful with you,” she muttered. “You should’ve seen the fit he pitched about getting you and your boy this room. Surprised folks. Doctor Cullen doesn’t lose his temper. But there he was hollering to beat the band…”

Dorothy paused, and smiled down at Edward. “You mean something special to him,” she answered. “And that’s a good thing for you and him.”

After re-arranging the blankets once more, she exited the room, leaving Elizabeth alone with Edward once more.

Her son hadn’t spoken in at least a day; each ingress of air seemed to crackle in his throat. Yet the rhythm was steady, a peaceful reminder that, yes, her son still breathed. Her child still lived. There was no mortar fire, no trench. No screaming commander, no battalion mates scrambling over the edge. No grenades.

But Edward was dying, just as surely…

She stared up at the ceiling. Wooden, painted white, with sections flaking, and still others showed signs of where the relentless Chicago rain had made its way through the shingle. Odd brown-tinged shapes, a circle, a spider, a sea monster…

The last time she had spent any significant amount of time here herself, she had been in recovery from losing Margaret. Margaret, who had nearly gone to her grave as simply BABY GIRL MASEN, until Elizabeth fought hard for her daughter to have a name, and some acknowledgment of the life she would have lived.

Margaret Masen, who is survived by her mother, father, and brother, Edward Masen II.

Had been survived by them, at any rate. But only for fourteen more years.

“I’ll see your sister,” Elizabeth said aloud, and her coughs kept themselves at bay just enough for her to get that much out.

Edward wheezed—in answer, she wasn’t certain.

“You won’t,” she added, rubbing her thumb across Edward’s hand. It felt slightly warm to her, but not much more than her own. “I won’t—let you go. You’ll—stay here.”

A groan of protest.

Even near death and almost delirious, Edward still just as stubborn as his father.

“You will,” she whispered, and the force of this caused her to erupt in coughs. “You will live, Edward.”

She just wasn’t sure how.

So instead she listened to Edward breathe.

In…out…one.

In…out…two.

When at last her child’s breathing lulled her to sleep, Elizabeth slept without dreams.

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§ 2 Responses to 17. Invisible Man"

  • jfly says:

    I love the shapes assumed by water stains on the ceiling, and I love Dorothy taking time to check in on those two Masens, E. With so many patients and such long shifts and the miserable, weary work of an epidemic, memorizing every patient’s name would be a superhuman chore. And futile, if you consider the turnover rate in the beds.
    Still, a seasoned, effective caregiver knows the human touch is essential to patient well-being. Dorothy can’t possibly call them Mrs. Masen and Master Masen, as though he were six, and it would be gruesomely inappropriate to call them Mrs. and Mr. Masen. So “Mother” is just perfect. “Your Edward” and “your boy” and ” Mrs. Masen” are all perfect. Dorothy is a mom, herself. She empathizes with Elizabeth’s special agony.
    At least Dorothy understands the origin of her special concern for Mrs. Masen and her boy.
    Dr. Cullen is so unclear about his own compulsions in this regard that he must think himself somewhat mad.
    I look forward, as always, to your next. Thank you.

  • soonermom says:

    This chapter made my heart clench, but it was beautifully done. You have a gift for evoking just the right amount of emotion that the situation calls for. Not too much, not too little. I look forward to the next one! Thanks for sharing!

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