8. Psalmist

Chicago, Illinois
October, 1918

They refused to let her see him.

The doctors had ordered her home. Families of patients were instructed to return to their houses and wait for the bad news to come by telegram. She couldn’t count any more the number of times a well-meaning nurse had walked her down the corridor, only to leave her when a patient cried out from one of the wards. Freed of direction, Elizabeth could duck up a back stairwell, returning again to the place where her husband lay.

Two days had passed, and she could not help noticing that in that time, approximately half the patients in the ward had disappeared-a quarter each night, it seemed. The newspaper reported over one hundred deaths per hospital per day. New admissions would now only be made with approval-the intake room had emptied, and police guarded its doors, urging the ill to one of the makeshift infirmaries which were springing up like a pox across the city. Still, those who did have approval to enter the hospital came in droves; filling beds that seemed to empty by the minute.

Her Edward couldn’t see them, thankfully. He lay hidden behind the sanitary curtain around his bed, shielded from the stretchers of bodies that Elizabeth saw marching their way out of the hospital. They called it a bronchopneumonia, though it spread like an influenza. Some of the patients had chills, some had aches. Even in the area outside the men’s ward Elizabeth could hear the groaning and screaming—some men seemed to merely have feverish aches, while others hollered as though parts of their bodies were being cut off.

The blood was the worst part. Not just her husband’s, although his was terrifying, but that it was everywhere-patients with eyes crimson red, noses bleeding so furiously that they spattered the floor before rags could be found. It seemed to her as though the disease was little more than the body tearing itself apart. At least twice in the two days she’d been here she’d seen a body and presumed it first to be a Negro, only realizing a moment later that the color was a splotchy blue-black instead of consistent brown.

Her husband’s skin had begun to turn this morning. A small spot on his arm, larger ones in the beds of his fingernails. His lips turned the color Junior’s had been one day when the boy been about seven and had insisted on staying out sledding with some of the older boys on their street.

“No, Mama!” Elizabeth remembered her son’s childish, high voice calling when she’d tried to force him to come back in that day. The snow was too fresh; his Flexible Flyer was brand new. It was a way of proving himself to the bigger boys, and she wasn’t to stand in his way.

He’d returned hours later, soaked to the bone from repeated crash-landings in snowdrifts, with his teeth clattering and his lips a bright blue. He insisted he didn’t need her, reminded her the big boys didn’t have their mothers looking after them, and then left a little sopping trail of first snowsuit, then trousers, then underpants on his way up the stairs.

She’d made him a cocoa and drawn a hot bath anyway. He’d grudgingly accepted.

Elizabeth shook her head. Junior was at home, practicing his piano, staying safely away from the influenza. It was such a funny thing, she thought, that sitting here in the metal chair outside the ward, listening to men screaming and crying in pain that her mind would go to such a pedestrian moment with her son. Just one small afternoon among thousands.

And so it was that she was thinking about Junior, with his blue lips and bare bottom when the voice interrupted her thoughts.

“Mrs. Masen?”

Her head jerked up. It was the light-eyed doctor, the one who had met them on Edward’s admission. He was so young, she thought. If she hadn’t encountered him in the hospital, she never would have thought him old enough to even be a physician. But there was an odd wisdom in him. Unlike the other doctors, he never appeared hurried or frazzled. He seemed to simply take whatever time he needed and then moved to the next person who needed his care. And maybe she was imagining, but it seemed as though he had taken a special interest in her and in her husband.

“Mrs. Masen?” he repeated.

“I am surprised you remember my name,” she answered. “I barely remember yours.”

“Cullen,” he said quietly. “I’m Dr. Cullen.” He dropped himself into the chair next to hers. “And I have an excellent memory. In addition, you remind me of someone…from my past.” At this, his eyes glazed a moment, and she could see him working as though trying to grasp at something. It struck her as odd; that he would have such a good memory as to remember her name but not, it seemed, enough for whoever it was she reminded him of.

He came back to himself in a few seconds. “Your husband—” he said quietly.

And that was enough, really. Hadn’t she just come to this conclusion herself; thinking about Junior and his blue lips after a day of sledding. Her husband’s skin was already turning that same dark bluish-black, “cyanosis,” she’d heard one of the nurses call it. And that was the moment at which they stopped. She had seen the way the doctors stopped visiting a bed, the way all the nurses would do was wipe a bleeding nose or spittle away from a face. The way the stretcher men came not long after.

So she nodded. “I understand.”

The young doctor stared at her. “No,” he said quietly, “you haven’t been in there in a short while, if I’m not mistaken.”

There was an assuredness to his voice that caused a chill to shoot down her spine. He was not mistaken. And somehow, without having never seen her there, he was certain.

She nodded.

“Mrs. Masen I—” he looked down, and drew a deep breath. “Mrs. Masen, I just arrived to my shift. I only work in the night, you see. And I went to check on your husband at once.”

She waved a hand, looking back at the floor. “I understand the outlook isn’t good.”

“He’s passed.”

For a split second, she thought she hadn’t heard him. Her next thought was perhaps in this context, those words had some other meaning, some sort of medical way of explaining something, like the way they referred to a whooping cough as pertussis. But then she met the strange yellow eyes—like a thin honey, she thought, not the kind you got at the orchard but the kind they sold at the market, the one that had been processed so that it would stay on the shelf. Those eyes went out of focus, the yellow becoming this strange blur.

It was a moment before she realized it was her eyes that had filled with tears.

There was still screaming and moaning coming from the ward, the sound of feet scuffling up and down the rows of beds. The doors opened and two nurses hurried out, giving Dr. Cullen a nod before disappearing off to some other part of the hospital.

The world needed to stop, she thought. Hadn’t Dr. Cullen just said that Edward had died?

But it couldn’t, she realized at once. Nothing was stopping for her; nothing could stop. Even Dr. Cullen had other places he needed to be.

Then she wouldn’t stop either. Elizabeth sniffled and wiped her eyes with the back of one hand. She drew herself upright. Standing several feet above Dr. Cullen, she was struck even more by how young he appeared-hardly older than her son. He was staring at the linoleum floor, his hands moving rapidly over each other.

“May I collect him?” she asked.

The doctor’s head jerked upward, and the honey eyes fixed on her, coldly confused.

“Have you access to an undertaker?”

An undertaker? There was a cemetery at their church, of course. She would call on the caretaker there and get his recommendation for the persons to use for the burial.

“Our church has a cemetery.”

His head shook in reply. “If they are willing to take him, they may come for him. But almost no undertakers are willing to work, ma’am. They don’t want to become ill themselves. The mayor has given instruction for the dead to be taken to mass burial.”

She blinked. Mass burial. For her husband?

A particularly loud cry erupted from the men’s ward, and both of them started.

“I am so terribly sorry,” the doctor repeated. “You don’t know—” There was a brief pause as he shot to his feet. “Please, wait a moment.” And like that, he seemed to vanish, the hinge on the men’s ward door creaking in protest behind him.

Elizabeth dropped back into the chair, her head in her hands. Just a few hours ago, Edward had been laughing, joking off his embarrassment at his wife seeing him so incapacitated.

“They feed me terrible things, Lizzie,” he had told her, his blue lips turning up at the edges. “Make sure Edward Junior doesn’t end up in here. He’ll become even scrawnier than he is already.”

It had been, what, five hours?

The linoleum floor was green, a funny, ugly hue. Black and white spots, some little, some larger. She wondered why the spots were there, if perhaps the ugly color was too overwhelming on its own and thus required the dots to break it up.

A little cloth package was shoved into her hands.

“Your husband’s effects,” came the quiet voice. “We don’t usually—”

He coughed, and began again. “I simply thought your son might want to carry his father’s things.”

Elizabeth ran her hands over the package, unwrapping it a bit. There were her husband’s eyeglasses, half-lens spectacles that he needed for reading but carried in his jacket pocket so they would never be seen. His pocket watch, the heavy brass thing that he carried every day so that his trousers always looked lopsided. His lighter, engraved with his initials.

E. A. M. Edward Anthony Masen. The same name they had given their only child.

It had been here, many corridors and floors away, she supposed. Her mother had insisted she come to a hospital; that was how the women were doing things these days and it was far safer. The pain had been terrible, yet somehow she had been astonished when she felt something give way, and she’d watched the doctor lift a squalling, smashed-face creature from between her legs.

Her arms had reached for him at once, and she had said the only word which came to her, the same word that would be the first word from his father’s lips a few minutes later when he was told he’d been given a son:

“Edward.”

Turning the lighter over in her hands, she rubbed her thumb carefully over the initials, burnishing them a little so that some of the grime of her husband’s pockets disappeared. The world had seemed theirs that day as they held the little bundle. They had watched him for hours, mesmerized by every yawn and cough, making silent promises to themselves. They would raise their little boy, send him to a good school, cheer him on in sports. Elizabeth would teach him how to play the piano. One day they would sit in the front row of a church when he married a pretty woman. Not long after they might come to a hospital again and this time, it would be his baby boy they would hold.

There was supposed to have been time for all of these things. Their son was supposed to have a father.

Her Edward was not supposed to die.

It was hardly cool in the hospital; the crush of bodies seemed to keep all the air a thick, stifling warmth. So the coolness of the finger that brushed her collar made her jump as the doctor’s hand came to rest on her shoulder.

“I am so very sorry,” came the whisper.

On the floor, white dots merged with the black dots and finally with the ugly green before it all became one blurry mess. This time, Elizabeth did nothing to stop her tears.

~||x||~

The rates from Cook County hospital were reported in the Sun-Times.

They were losing forty percent.

It demoralized the physicians. It was true that more patients were walking out of Cook than were dying, but only by the tiniest amount, and on any given day, that number could seem imperceptible. The ones who were well enough to leave almost never saw a doctor at all; they were rerouted by friendly nurses or sent on their way by intake staff, redirected to one of the armories or churches which had been pressed into service as infirmaries as the epidemic wore on.

This meant, of course, that those Carlisle saw were the ones who would die-it seemed at times as though he saw the forty percent and only them.

The influenza struck hard and without mercy, and it seemed like every time Carlisle turned around there was another man or woman fallen. The fastest report was four hours-a patient who experienced his first symptoms at six in the morning and was pronounced dead by ten.

And in the midst of this, he was still trying to keep focus.

His steps were loud as he walked toward his office.

Carlisle always bought sturdy shoes, shoes which withstood years of wear, particularly with the aid of a cobbler. There was some part of him that felt he should wear good shoes, and he tended to listen to those parts. Those parts were the parts of him that came from before. The parts that kept him human.

He flexed his right hand. He had touched her, Elizabeth, the woman who had captured him with her striking green eyes only three days before. He never did that. He was too afraid that a human would notice the unnatural coolness, the way his skin was unyielding instead of soft. And he did not allow himself to become close to patients. If that was even what this was.

True, he had raced to the hospital both days since Mr. Masen’s admission. True, the man’s status had been his first checked at the beginning every shift, the last looked in on at the end. True, he had accepted the man’s affects, hiding them in the bedstand in case an unscrupulous gurney man or gravedigger tried to take them from him.

He shook his head in dismay. All of this had been a mistake. Humans were mortal. Even something as small as worrying about them ended in this dull ache in his being that he couldn’t shake. This, he suspected, was why the brothers in Italy looked down with such disdain on the mortals. It was simply easier.

Even if you grew close to them, they would still die.

He wouldn’t do it again.

The groan of frustration ripped from him before he had the forethought to suppress it.

“Are you all right, Doctor?”

Startled, he whirled. Too quickly. Dorothy gave him an odd look.

“You’re not becoming ill, are you?”

If only she knew how ridiculous a proposition that was. “I’ve just lost a patient.” His voice was gravelly, almost growled, and he wondered briefly if she noticed the animalistic sounds he tried so hard to keep from his voice.

Dorothy, however, looked mollified by his admission. She clucked her tongue softly and moved closer to him, laying a hand on his upper arm. He jerked away out of instinct, and she frowned, but spoke anyway.

“There isn’t a one of us seen anything like this, Doctor Cullen. But it won’t do any of us good to dwell on what we don’t have right now.” She locked his gaze. “You’re needed in the women’s ward. You do what you need to”—a quick glance toward his office door—”and then come see to the patients. Just because you missed one don’t mean you can’t save more today.”

Then she turned.

Carlisle stared down the hall toward his office. Then, shaking his head, he turned and followed Dorothy.

The women’s ward was filled to overflowing. Any medical facility, or anything which could be pressed into service as a medical facility-churches, armories, libraries-they were all bursting at the seams.

A patient near the door was nearing death; even if his stethoscope might not catch the growing rattle in her lungs as she slowly drowned, his ears knew the sound. He stopped to look briefly at the chart at the foot of her bed. Her name was Alma, she was twenty-three years old.

My age, Carlisle thought, and it startled him. He didn’t often think of himself as being anything other than over two centuries old. Her fever was high, and from the sounds of it, the pneumocystis had set in. There wouldn’t be much time for her.

He leaned over her bed and took her hand. “Alma?” he asked gently.

Her eyes snapped open, revealing a vivid blue-gray gone only slightly clouded from the influenza. Like most humans did when they first looked into his eyes, she frowned, and he fought not to look away. An ocular condition, he explained to patients and coworkers who looked too closely. A rare disease which had nearly blinded him as a child and left his eyes this feline-like color. Others tried not to stare, and he appreciated that, but it also meant that he very rarely had the pleasure of having another look him in the eye. That this patient did so was startling and refreshing.

“How do you feel?”

She coughed, shaking her head, a bit of blood bubbling on her lips and dripped down her chin. There was a rag hanging from the head of her bed, and Carlisle took it, wiping her chin gently. When she had settled, she looked up at him again with half-closed eyes.

“Am I going to die, doctor?”

He sighed, and wondered if he should have even bothered to look at the chart. It was harder to answer, “Yes,” to a patient when he knew her name, when he had made that inevitable comparison to the end of his own human life.

But that was his job. And had that not been what he had thought when he had entered the ward? His ears had identified the woman as near death at once. Did it do her any good now, when she had asked, to lie? What would it accomplish?

His hesitation solved the problem for him, however. She was already shaking her head when Carlisle met her eyes again. “No need,” she rasped. “No need, doctor. I understand.”

And he was grateful. He ducked his head.

“I need to attend to the others,” he told her quietly. “Is there anything I can have the nurses do for you?”

She shook her head, and her full hair flopped across her face. But as he was turning away, her voice came again.

“Doctor? Are you a Christian?”

He froze. What kind of a question was that? Was he a Christian? He was a vampire. Did not the one preclude the other? He looked hastily around the ward to see if anyone else had heard this question, or had seen the way he had jerked in response. The patients to either side of Alma were already lost in febrile hallucinations, rolling and moaning and coughing so hard they probably had no way of hearing a single request of a patient, even one immediately adjacent to them. The nurses, for their parts, bustled from bed to bed, wiping brows, taking temperatures, attending to soiled bed linens.

No one had noticed.

He turned back to Alma and fixed her grey eyes in his own. “I was raised in the English church,” he answered quietly, “but I don’t attend now.” It had been decades, in fact-shortly after the North and South war. He had gone to a church in Pennsylvania, Methodist, where the congregation was mourning its sons who had died in the war. He had run himself ragged-or as near to ragged as he might have been able to-attending to soldiers on the battlefields, and he had needed then to say something, to somehow give thanks for the fact that his new country had not torn itself in two. But since then, there had been nothing—over fifty years.

She didn’t seem fazed by this answer, however. “I haven’t been in a long time, either,” she said. “They’ve closed them all, the churches.”

He had forgotten this, but of course it was true. The city had declared that there was to be no public congregating in this time-bringing people together was simply a way to spread the disease more quickly. Gymnasiums had shuttered their doors, along with theatres and concert halls, schools, and of course, the churches. At times, the tollers still rang the bells, but even as he thought about it he could not recall a time in the last three weeks in which the bells of the churches near his flat had rung. The city was silent.

“Doctor, would you say an Our Father with me?”

He gulped, and again his eyes darted around the room. There was still no one looking at him. So he turned and went back to the bedside. Taking Alma’s hand again, he knelt at her bedside. The mask he wore was of course unnecessary, just a part of his charade. He pulled it down so that she might hear him clearly, and bowed his head.

She closed her eyes.

“Our Father who art in heaven,” she began, and for a moment, he did not finish. But then she coughed, and he looked to her again, to the way a bit of blood dripped from her lips, and thought about the prognosis he had just given, or rather, had allowed her to figure out for herself. He thought about Edward Masen, his strong son, and his widow. He thought about the way the boy had tried so valiantly not to cry, and how much he longed to console them. How terrible he had felt standing before them and admitting that he was powerless.

His voice rose, shaking.

“Hallowed be thy name,” he whispered, and the gray eyes fluttered closed in satisfaction.

“Thy kingdom come—”

“Thy will be done—”

“On Earth as it is in Heaven.”

So among the clattering of beds against wooden floor, among moans of pain, coughing, the dark rattling of breath-those dying and those merely suffering; it was impossible to tell the difference now-they prayed together, in whispers, one line at a time, in whispers. It was a prayer for her, certainly, but it was as much a prayer for the family he had left in the men’s ward; a prayer for their safety; a prayer of penitence for his own inability to fulfill what he had promised them.

“Amen” came from both of them at once, and for a split second, it was as though there was silence in the ward. Gray eyes met yellow, locking them hard. They said nothing a moment, and then he leaned forward as though to feel her temperature with his palm. It was an odd thing, this fever; so many patients had fevers above one hundred degrees that he could finally get away with contact-they noticed his hands were cold, certainly, but a patient merely chalked this abnormality up to his or her own illness, and thought nothing of whether it was Carlisle who was abnormal.

When his hand touched her brow, the gray eyes closed.

Usually he didn’t say anything. The best he offered his patients was his thanks to them for allowing him to treat them. His closure, and the only way he allowed himself to display any emotion for a patient at all. He didn’t speak with them; he didn’t sit with them, and he certainly did not pray with them, for them, or over them. Perhaps it was that the woman was twenty-three, or perhaps it was the way she had stopped him and asked, or perhaps it was going back on his word to take care of Edward Masen, but the words were already on his lips. The twenty-third psalm; not the beginning that everyone knew, but the end, the committal. The part which he suddenly felt he owed to a woman whom he had not managed to tell outright of her own death.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow thee all the days of thy life. And thou shalt dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

He was saying it to her, yes. But as he said it, he imagined not the woman before him, but the other woman, the one with the red hair and the striking green eyes. With his words, he commended her husband, apologizing for his own shortfall to the mother and to her young son. If God would hear the prayers of a vampire—and he doubted this—then perhaps he might be forgiven for this failure.

Where was Elizabeth now? he wondered. Trying to press her way into the men’s ward again? On her way home to take care of the gangly boy?

Carlisle squeezed Alma’s hand one last time, stood, and stepped away quickly, before she could say anything. In his hurry, he nearly ran headlong into Dorothy where she stood a bed away. Her brow furrowed as she looked on him with a soft expression.

“Doctor, you are quite the extraordinary man,” she said quietly. “To find God in this place.”

He blinked. Turning, he glanced back.

The young woman before was staring, dazed by his addition. Then, when she saw him looking, she smiled, and he saw her lips had turned a dark, purplish-blue.

The panic and frustration that had seized him so powerfully a short time ago clawed back. He pulled his hand closed, remembering where it had touched the neck of the woman, Elizabeth. He had failed her. He had failed her son. And now he would fail this woman as well.

Locking eyes with Dorothy, he shook his head, slowly. When he spoke, his voice was ice.

“God has forsaken this place,” was all he said.

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Chapter Notes

§ 8 Responses to 8. Psalmist"

  • jenny says:

    poor carlisle. he’s taking this influenza pretty seriously.
    this makes me want to see him at work as a camp doctor or regimental surgeon during wartime. to be the healer of mankind’s injuries to man: is that harder or easier for him than to watch people fall victim to disease? is it his own helplessness that preys on him so profoundly?
    if elizabeth lived, would he have become edward’s legit stepfather?
    i’m glad dorothy got to see this other side of carlisle. i know she has odd ideas or maybe questions or maybe a peculiar impression of the young doctor. he’s tormented. it’s intriguing; i’m sure. she’s so good to him. he truly has needed her maternal concern, whether he has known it or not.

    • giselle says:

      Well, I think Carlisle would struggle a bit with having a relationship with a human, so probably not. But you’re on the right track. ;)

      As for Carlisle in wartime–I *think* we’re going to get a bit of that. I’m not 100% certain. I haven’t fleshed out the actual scenes for some of the later chapters, but that’s one that’s bouncing around in my head.

      I’m glad you like Dorothy. :)

  • foufymaus says:

    Wow, as always i’m blown away by the weight of the emotions you convey within a scene. How something about wearing a good pair of shoes is a link to humanity that he continues to seek and embrace. I love that little detail because it lends to a larger emotional weight of how he took time to pray over a dying woman. Even as he himself is clinging on to own humanity. Utterly brilliant, I absolutely adore how you’ve manage to capture the weight of the situation they’re in.

    *grin* Until next time!

    • giselle says:

      Thank you. :) :blushy face:

      It’s interesting about the shoes–that was a section of this chapter that went in after the first draft, got removed, re-written, removed again, and re-inserted. (It had some serious typos at first blush because of that, too–I think you read the version where ‘d corrected them.) I’m glad you liked it!

  • Tina says:

    I giggled over the thought of a bare-assed young Edward in the sledding scene. Of course, I’ve lived moments like that. Perfectly done.

    Carlisle’s compassion for Elizabeth and Edward Jr. is so touching. I find it interesting that he couldn’t picture himself having a relationship with a human, and then his ‘son’ does, with his support.

    And the prayer – that was just lovely. Bringing him back to his roots. A reminder of all he had lost, in some ways.

    Beautiful chapter. (Update soon. tee hee )

    • Jessi says:

      I think he’s sort of talked himself out having a relationship with a human, at least the way I see it. I feel like his encounter with Esme both burned for him and mad him skittish.

      Someday…someday I’ll write it. :)

  • Em says:

    This chapter is so beautiful I don’t know what to say. I love how Elizabeth Masen is so pure.. and how Carlisle finds a lot of her in her son. You’ve truly recreated the year of 1918. Extraordinary!

  • soonermom says:

    This one hit me in the gut! I think when a character is a doctor as well as a vampire, we tend to forget that being these two things doesn’t make them devoid of emotion. That just because both Carlisle’s profession and what he is might make his action seem cold and calculated, that he does, in fact, care greatly about those he’s helping. You wrote his emotions flawlessly, making them achingly clear in this chapter. It was beautiful (if not a little gut wrenching!)!

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