4. Motherless Child

Chicago, Illinois
October, 1918

The brow was still unnaturally hot under his palm as Carlisle gently pressed closed a pair of eyes that had once danced with life. Now they had gone as flat gray as the bedclothes on which their owner lay. He murmured an apology, faster than human ears around him would be able to hear, and then in a single motion lifted the body into his arms and stripped the bed beneath it. Strictly speaking, stripping beds was the nurses’ duty, but there weren’t enough hands to go around any longer, and he could easily carry both the human child and the bedsheet.

So light, he thought in dismay. No human body felt heavy to him of course, but the young woman in his arms was scarcely more than a girl—fourteen, he’d read on her chart. He hadn’t known her at all. Yesterday, she had not even been ill enough to need to be moved from the temporary infirmary at the armory, and today, she was dead. The only twisted consolation Carlisle could offer himself was that the nurse had reported the girl had already been orphaned and had no siblings. There was no one left to miss her.

He wasn’t sure whether to be thankful or outraged.

It was as though the whole of Chicago had become ill overnight. Reports of the influenza were pouring in via telegram and telephone as doctors throughout the entire country tried to put a stop to what seemed to be the eleventh plague. Or perhaps it was merely the tenth plague, revisited—it did, after all, seem as though every other hour Carlisle heard a mother’s wail as yet another firstborn child was taken.

He was in the hospital today, walking among frazzled nurses as they rushed from bed to bed. The most ill were to be put in a special ward, but some turned so quickly there was no time to get them there. Once there, they were often delirious with fever—a good thing, Carlisle supposed, as it kept anyone from discovering his dual life. He worked at two hospitals and an armory-turned-infirmary, leaving each position under the auspices of needing rest, only to turn up shortly after at another location. His apartment sat empty for days at a time now, although he doubted that in the mayhem any of his neighbors had even noticed.

Carlisle wound his way through the rows of beds, the girl’s body gently cradled against his own. The hospital was a frenetic hive of energy, with bedpans clattering, patients talking out in their fevers, families shedding tears. And still the silence of the body in his arms was deafening as he pushed his way through the doors and down the stairs to the morgue. If there had been eyes to see, someone might have questioned that he did not use a stretcher, but every nurse and every doctor were too swamped with other patients to notice anything unusual about Carlisle’s behavior. At last he reached the hulking doors that separated the morgue from the rest of the hospital, and when he slid inside, the clamor of the world around him disappeared.

It was early, and the girl was the only one so far today, although Carlisle had seen days when there had scarcely been room to lay a grown man in this space. He hoped it would stay nearly empty today. He laid the small body on a canvas gurney and arranged her limbs so that when rigor mortis set in, she would be easily transported. He wondered for a moment if she would be claimed. Many weren’t, as their families were either too poor to bury them properly, or too afraid of infecting their household with the disease. Public mass graves were being dug throughout the city, and a number of his patients had been carted to them.

The girl’s hair fanned out beneath her as Carlisle turned her in the winding sheet. It was a rich chestnut, and he allowed it to fall over her shoulders as it likely had in life. She was utterly alone, left to die by family members who had all been claimed before her. He wrapped her carefully, as though she would feel pain, then chastised himself for thinking so.

When he reached her face however, his hand brushed her brow once more. The forehead was already beginning to cool, the body admitting its defeat. His hand lingered there a moment as he bowed his head over his patient.

He wasn’t much for praying, not any longer. He made his peace with the Almighty on one night every year, which for a man whose life was unending, made sense. Humans, with their shortened existences, repented every seven days—he, with his interminable one, every three hundred and sixty-five. But he still found comfort in ritual, the one part of him, he supposed, that was still a little bit human. And so he always said the same words over his patients, or to them. So as he pulled the sheet up over the small head, sealing off the body from the world around it and hiding it from view of those who might see it, he murmured the same phrase he always did:

“It has been a pleasure treating you.”

Tucking the sheet under the body, he turned away and swallowed deeply. There were scores already who had died, and these words seemed to leave his mouth almost daily. Yet each one weighed on him. He hadn’t seen this many dead so quickly since he had first begun practice, when he had served among the wars in France. Usually one had time to recover, to collect oneself before facing the next case that might end in the loss of life. Not here. Here almost every patient bore the weight of a death sentence from the moment he walked—or more likely, was carried—through the door. Healing meant less treating and more hoping, and it felt at times that all he could offer were a few words of consolation.

His steps were slow as he left the morgue. The girl was his seventieth death in a month. The Cook County hospital was bursting at its seams, and it a bed was barely emptied before another patient arrived to fill it. Sometimes the patients lasted two days, sometimes four, and once in a while, they made their way home—although those whose illness had warranted their arrival in the hospital were usually not able to achieve this last. Even the doctors were becoming sick now, their own bodies falling to the influenza as surely as did their patients’.

This disease had rendered him powerless.

The hospital was a constant assault to his senses as he walked back toward the patient wards. The influenza caused hemorrhaging of the capillaries, and it seemed every step he took, he was met with the salty scent of fresh blood as a new patient hemorrhaged. Patients rasped for breath, their lungs filling with the viscous fluid that would eventually claim them.

Carlisle wanted to plug his ears, his nose. He could leave, he rationalized. Many already had, hoping to save themselves and their families from this invisible killer. Deserters, the hospital called them, as though they were all soldiers at war. He would be missed, but it would not be unforgivable.

It would be, however, something he for which he could never forgive himself.

The din of the hospital fell away as he made his way to his office. He needed to fill out the death certificate for the girl, and while it was a poor use of his time, it gave him an excuse to back away for a moment. He flicked on the light and took his seat, finishing the paperwork in seconds. But he stayed there, hunched over the desktop for nearly a full minute, staring at the death certificate. Fourteen. He had lived as a human himself longer than that by half.

His hand turned black. He stared at it, puzzled, until he realized that he’d crushed his ink pen in his grip. The viscous fluid trickled down the backs of his knuckles to his wrist, where it soiled the hem of his sleeve in a perfect black ring.

“Dr. Cullen?”

It was Dorothy. As was her habit, she swept into the room, frowning at him and the ink that was now pooling on the desk. He jerked his arm as though to hide it, but there was no way. She looked from him, to the pen, to the stain on his shirt, then to the death certificate. This last she snatched up before the ink reached it, shaking her head at him in dismay.

“It’s a long night,” she said, her voice gentle. “How long have you been here?”

He looked at the clock, although he knew perfectly. It was just after dawn, and he’d come a few hours before dusk. “Fourteen hours.”

She clucked her tongue. “You need rest, Doctor. You won’t be of use to them if you go and get sick, too.” Holding up the death certificate, she looked at it a moment. “This what’s got you upset?”

Not really, he thought. What had him upset were the bodies piling up in the morgue; the mass graves in the heart of Chicago that reminded him of the massacred revolutionaries he’d seen in France. What had him upset was the way even with undetectable speed and senses thousands of times more sensitive than humans’ he still lost just as many patients. What had him upset was that the girl had no family—and that they had this significant detail in common.

That she was only a girl barely scratched the surface.

But still, he sighed and nodded, as she studied the death certificate some more.

“Fourteen,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Young to be so ill.”

Young to be ill? It was young to be dead.

As though she had heard his thought, Dorothy added, “We can’t save them all, Doctor.” Giving a disapproving look to his still-blackened hand, she added, “And you won’t be saving any, state you’re in. I’ll take this to the women. You get on home.”

He didn’t answer. Instead he stood there, flexing his hand open and closed a few times so that more ink squeezed from his palm onto the desk. This was the part that was difficult, when he had to pretend to be human, to force himself home instead of staying where he could be of real use. He knew he was supposed to go, and it was an overcast day—the reason he’d stayed so late to begin with.

Two hands appeared on the desk, holding a rag which blackened as the ink spill slowly shrank. Then the rag moved to his own hand, and he found his palm gently burnished back to a nearly-clean state.

When Dorothy spoke again, her voice was a little softer. “Doctor Cullen, I’m not your mother.”

It was an odd thing for her to say, and an even odder thing for him to react to. He kept to himself, for to talk about his past was to potentially travel down rabbit holes from which there was no escape. The less people knew, the less he had to fabricate. But Dorothy’s words drew his eyes upward. She had a son near his physical age, he knew, and it occurred to Carlisle that he was on the receiving end of a much practiced look—an expression that was at once both disapproving and kind.

“I’m not your mother,” she repeated when she knew she had his attention, “and I’m not the boss of you. I can’t make you do something. But you need to go home.” The rag disappeared back into the pocket in her apron, and Carlisle considered for the briefest of moments that the ink would stain her clothing as well. She didn’t seem to mind.

He could go home. It wouldn’t be the first day a shift would end with a death, and it was far from the last. But he was tired of ending his days with defeat instead of victory. And so he shook his head, causing Dorothy to sigh.

“I’ll go down to intake,” he told her. “I’ll see one more. Then I’ll go.” He stood, brushing his hand against his coat as he did so. It left no mark—Dorothy’s rag had done its job well. He nodded toward her pocket. “Thank you for cleaning that mess. You didn’t need to.”

She grunted, but a small smile played on her lips. “You just see that you don’t make another. And if you think that you will, you go on home.”

He nodded. “I will.” Replacing the shattered pen with another from his desk drawer, he slung his stethoscope over his neck. The two of them departed the office together, Carlisle tugging the door closed behind them. Dorothy turned away, toward the wing of the hospital where the filing clerks worked, no doubt to deliver the death certificate for the young girl. They were a few yards apart down the corridor when he heard her mutter to herself, “The boy could use himself a mother.”

The pain that flooded him was unexpected, and for a moment, his steps stilled, and he squeezed his eyes closed against the dim light of the hallway. He drew a deep breath and found that it quavered, and he was thankful that Dorothy was far enough away now that she wouldn’t see. Exhaling slowly, he answered her comment in a voice too low for any human to hear:

“That’s because I never had one.”

Another deep breath—this one steadier—and then he willed his feet to move toward the waiting patients.

~||x||~

It happened while they were arguing over Junior.

Elizabeth was tired of it, frankly. The two of them always made the same points, slung back and forth like mud—she coddled him; Edward pushed him. He wasn’t a baby; he wasn’t yet a man. To die for one’s country was noble; to lose their son would leave them childless.

This time it was about the future, as it always seemed to be these days. They were running a risk, she thought, arguing where Little Edward could hear them. Not that he was all that little any longer—he stood a head and shoulders above her, and now had several inches on his father as well. To Elizabeth, her son was perfect, a blend of her husband’s frame and her coloring. The boy had inherited her eyes, the unusual sea-glass green that had caused her own mother to joke that she’d somehow been bewitched as an infant. On her, she quietly had to side with her mother—the eyes looked odd and out of place. But set in her son’s strong face, the strange eyes softened him, gave him an air of perpetual inquisitiveness, underscoring his gentle nature despite his ungainly frame.

“If he wants to join up, we should let him, Lizzie,” her husband explained. “It will be good for him. Toughen him up.”

She barely repressed the snarl that formed in answer. In their circle, there was no one who supported the war. Other mothers had wailed when their sons had been called up; only two had enlisted underage. Toughen Edward up, certainly it would—but that was only if he came back alive. Thelma in the women’s circle at the church had already lost her son, Private Christopher Hadrick, nineteen years old.

Two years older. The thought alone could make her weep, and she did so sometimes, when Edward was off at school and she was laundering his clothes. Her husband was known for his confidence—overconfidence, in her opinion. But she was the one who was left with the nightmares—the image of the wooden coffin sailing its way over the ocean, the sea glass eyes clouded and flat.  She would wake from these dreams, disturbing her husband, who’d turn in his sleep and grumble a little before falling back into a deep slumber. And when he was fully asleep, she would slip out of their bed in her nightgown and tiptoe down the hallway to the room where their son slept.

Those nights Elizabeth would stand in the doorway, watching the moonlight shade over young Edward’s cheeks, looking at the way his hair spilled over the pillow, how he lay with a gangly arm flung over the side of the bed. He still looked like a boy when he was asleep, and when his eyelids fluttered, Elizabeth still saw traces of the plump baby who had once slept in her arms. All young mothers, she had once been told, sat and watched their babies sleep, afraid that they would suddenly cease breathing in the night. But one was supposed to grow out of that, and she never had. Perhaps this was in part because her baby seemed so intent on increasing his chances to die.

Edward accused her of mollycoddling their son, of placing too much importance on what he considered the boy’s less-than-masculine pursuits. This was why, she supposed, he was so willing to support their son’s bloodlust—and perhaps why Junior himself was so eager, also. A personally-acquired body count of Germans would go a long way toward offsetting any worries others might have about his virility just because of his skill at the piano.

As though he’d heard her thoughts, her husband added, “I won’t have an Ethel for a son.”

“Junior is hardly an Ethel.” He played football with his friends, much to her dismay, and she’d dutifully looked the other way when six months ago he had decided that it was high time for him to take up with Lucky Strikes. If anything, she desperately missed the boy who had cuddled against her when he the world had seemed too overwhelming.

“Just because he wants to go to the Institute of Musical Arts doesn’t make him less of a man.”

Her husband grunted. “Still. It’d be nice to see the boy making some headway on his own.”

“Edward, he’s seventeen. By law he can’t enlist.” Although who knew what Wilson would do next? Mere weeks ago he’d all but dropped the guillotine on the younger boys of his country, when he’d lowered the age of conscription. It brought the jaws of death chomping ever closer to Edward Junior—he would be able to enlist on June 20, when he was eighteen. Here’s hoping we’re out of this godforsaken war before then.

“That’s old enough,” her husband answered gruffly. “You baby him. He’s a man.”

“Barely.” He still had one year left of high school, still struggled with his Latin, still resisted doing his reading. Could a boy whose mightiest battles to date had been fought against literature essays really be sent off to the trenches?

“What’s more important,” her husband added, his voice softer, “is that he wants to go. I’m not forcing him there, Lizzie.”

At this she hung her head, because it was true. Elizabeth looked away and stared at where their radio stood. Every night they turned it on, listening for the latest reports from France and Germany, the latest victories by their brave soldiers, the most recent body count. Edward Junior was raring to be over in Europe. He had wandered down to the enlistment office himself, but thankfully a teacher from his high school had recognized him and alerted the on-duty officer before Edward had been able to get his name down.

She had wanted to die that day, when the teacher showed up on her doorstep with her son in tow. Had she been the beating type, she would have thrashed him well–not because she felt he had done wrong, but because he’d scared her so badly.

Elizabeth Masen couldn’t lose a second child.

Her husband had not carried Margaret. He hadn’t even known her. He hadn’t felt her kicking and moving, the way she would fail to sleep when Elizabeth meant to. He hadn’t felt the agony of her trying to fight her way into existence from the wrong position, the pain—the physical, yes, but that was so distantly second to the pain of fearing, and then knowing, that your baby was going to suffocate before she ever took a breath. The little girl had been delivered blue, unmoving, having ripped through Elizabeth’s insides in what would prove to be a suicidal struggle. It had been all Elizabeth had been able to do to even convince her husband that the baby should be named before she was buried, content as he was with “Baby Girl Masen.” He had simply telegrammed her mother to come assist with caring for Junior, just barely three at the time, while Elizabeth convalesced from the birth which had preempted her daughter’s life and nearly taken her own. Her woman organs were removed, and her body healed slowly, but her heart stayed broken. There would be no more children.

Edward had simply commented that they should throw their energy into their son.

So she had. Junior had always had the finest things they could afford: the best schools, the nicest clothes, and a shiny Bosendorfer in the parlor. He’d shown aptitude for the instrument since just after he’d been left without his sister, and now he was nearly as skilled as any professional. If Elizabeth could have it her way, she would send him off to New York, where he could train with the very best masters and begin his career. There was nothing like the sound of Junior at the piano. She most preferred the Chopin, which he played often, simply because he knew she liked it. Elizabeth could walk into the living room and slide her fingers into Junior’s hair as he played, and he would pretend to ignore her, only finally swatting her away when he reached the end of his song. When he played, he was at peace, and she was too.

There would be no piano in the army.

Turning back from the radio, she murmured. “I can’t let him go, Edward.”

But before her husband managed to respond, he leaned off the edge of the sofa and coughed up blood.

~||x||~

Patients seemed to be swarming everywhere in the intake room. They sprawled across the metal chairs, leaned against the doorjambs, lay half-collapsed on the cold floor. Three nurses moved swiftly among them, writing down the names of those who were too ill to walk, sending those who merely had a light cough off to one of the infirmaries. In some chairs, patients sat alone, a hospital blanket clutched around their shoulders as they shook from chills.

The humans couldn’t move fast enough, he knew. He would try to make up for them, but even he was only able to do so much. He’d told Dorothy he would see exactly one more. For some strange reason, he felt inclined to follow his word, even though he would never be tired. He could see hundreds more patients, and no one would notice…

His eyes searched over the small crowd, looking for the one who most needed his assistance. He was just ready to turn to the nurses and ask whom he should see when he saw her.

Green eyes. An unusual, bottle green—not a color Carlisle had often seen on humans. Human eyes were flat somehow, the brightest colors dulled. But not this woman’s. She stared around the room and alternately at the man down in her lap. Her husband? It seemed so, for next to them both sat a young man. He was a good head and shoulders above the woman, but he had her coloring–reddish hair, and the same strange green eyes. The son looked more worried than did his mother, casting furtive glances down at the man who lay trembling against his wife.

Moving carefully, Carlisle wound his way through the room, bypassing patient after patient to reach the woman. He stood before her for several seconds while she focused on her husband’s face. Her own dress was becoming dark with his sweat, and the chairs beneath them both rattled as he shivered.

“Hello,” Carlisle said quietly, and the woman’s eyes drew upward at once. Her expression was plaintive, and he swallowed guiltily. There was so much need in a hospital, so many faces like this woman’s. And he couldn’t help them all. He remembered the small body he had carried to the morgue–what, an hour before?

Before he could stop himself, he had knelt beside the woman, and begun to assess the husband. His pulse was quick, and Carlisle could feel the heat radiating from his fevered body. But his coughing was still clear, his skin yet showed no sign of the cyanosis. These were good things. He had time.

“This is your husband?” he asked, and the woman nodded solemnly. Carlisle laid a hand on the man’s brow, and the face turned into his palm, no doubt seeking the coolness there. Usually Carlisle needed to be careful about touching his patients, for the unnatural temperature of his body was off-putting to many of them and risked his secret. But in the midst of this epidemic, his cool touch was welcome, and he was finally able to use his excellent sense of touch in his diagnoses.

“Edward.” The sound startled him so much that it took Carlisle a split second to realize the woman had spoken.

“I’m sorry?”

“Edward. His name is Edward. Edward Masen. Senior,” she added, cocking her head meaningfully in the direction of the young man sitting beside her.

So the young man was Edward also. Carlisle took a moment to appraise him. He had his father’s build–strong, tall, and the planes of his face were angular in a way that suggested that he would be a striking man when he grew into his limbs and out of his acne. But it was his eyes that truly did it. He looked at Carlisle with his mother’s green eyes, eyes that made him look more vulnerable, that seemed to show that trapped within this young man was a boy worrying over his father.

Carlisle swallowed yet again.

“Will you be able to help him?” the young man asked. His voice was unexpectedly plaintive; high in pitch for his age, and Carlisle’s ears could detect the tiny crack that the boy was obviously trying to mask. It was a fearful question, asked by a young man trying very much not to sound like a scared little boy.

His usual answer would be “I hope so,” or perhaps “I’ll do everything I can.” If there was one thing Carlisle had learned over the years it was not to make promises he had no scientific ability to keep. It did no good to inflate expectations. For a moment his mind wandered three floors up and an hour earlier, his pen crushing in his fingers as he looked at the young girl’s date of birth. Fourteen. Snatched from this world before she’d ever really lived in it. These things tore at him, but that was the way things were, and while he could try to prevent it, it was ultimately unstoppable. Humans were mortal by definition, and it did no one any good to exaggerate their chances of survival.

But something about the way this boy looked up at him, the way his expression matched that of his mother stirred Carlisle. He found himself desperately wanting to assure the boy and his mother that the man sprawled between them would live. Nevertheless, he’d nearly managed his usual carefully tempered statement, and the words were nearly on his lips when the man moaned.

“Elizabeth…”

Carlisle gasped and froze, and suddenly those two sets of green eyes were on him again, watching his face as though it might answer them before his voice did. But he found he couldn’t answer her, that the careful words of cautious optimism were gone. The name stirred a longing for which he had no context, even though his mind raced to grasp at wisps of memories long lost to him. But no face came to his mind, no person presented herself in his memory to ground his response, but he knew at once beyond reason that an Elizabeth was someone he had to help.

“He’ll live,” he muttered, standing. “I will save him.” He barely heard the coughing of the rest of the patients in the intake or the words of the nurses as they rushed from patient to patient. He didn’t see the people to either side; he didn’t smell the blood, the mucous, the spit. His senses dulled to everyone but the woman, her husband, and her child, as though the whole world had reduced itself to him and this small family.

“Just let me find a team with a stretcher.”

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Chapter Notes

§ 4 Responses to 4. Motherless Child"

  • foufymaus says:

    Wow a mothers worry. Poor Carlisle. I just loved the update. Thanks!

  • twitina says:

    You killed me with Carlisle’s statement ‘That’s because I never had one.’ Just made my heart break for him.

    I adore Elizabeth. She is everything I imagined Edward’s mother to be. A fighter. A mama bear.

    And Carlisle’s reaction to the name Elizabeth. sigh

    As always, brilliant.

  • pace is the trick says:

    “That’s because I never had one.” This broke my heart! *snif*

    I love your fic but you already know I wish it went another direction so I will leave it here and wish you well with its conclusion.

    All the best! :)

  • jenny says:

    would he have a backup fountain pen?
    lettuce reason together.
    he has a single fountain pen, yes. he bought it himself because it’s the modern thing to do. no modern medical man has used ink wells for more than a decade.
    on the one hand, he’s young doctor, not yet made his way in the world, so he wouldn’t have received a (second) pen as a gift celebrating a milestone on the job.
    on the other hand, he IS a doctor, so he could have received fountain pens as graduation gifts from his many (imaginary) proud family members wishing him well on his endeavours in chicago.
    on the other hand, he is cautious, and it might be more sensible to have a single pen at the hospital and think to himself “now i shall have to buy another tomorrow. perhaps the mottled horn montblanc i saw some months ago at marshall field’s.” and put a finely sharpened pencil in his pocket to finish out the day.
    on the other hand, he has recognized for some time that his control has been slipping by incriments, so it would have been a precaution to have a spare pen on hand for just such an occasion of superfluous force as this.

    now carlisle has many hands, and i shall stop.

    in other news, i can already taste the guilt of his LIE to elizabeth and her son OMG. how dare he?

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