The schoolhouse cafeteria had already been filled, but Mary Parker realized that if some of the cots were moved, one more patient could be wedged in. Two officers brought in a middle-aged man to take the empty space. He’d been found alone on Boston’s north side, slumped over a park bench, running a high fever.
With bleary eyes, she watched them settle the newcomer into his cot. Though the men were gentle, they were brisk in tucking him under the sheets. Eager, in a way. And when the newest patient to Hugh Elementary School had been swaddled up, the officers only spared Mary a curt nod before escaping through the cafeteria’s exit. Not one word was uttered. Rather, their eyes did the talking, in the way they stayed more focused on the floor rather than the hundreds of beds lined up in rows, pushed along the walls, some frame to frame.
Mary tightened her mask and straightened her uniform: a white dress fashioned with a red cross over the front. She fiddled with the knot tied in back, but only succeeded in making it more of a knot and less of the elegant bow she’d seen in those volunteer posters. Nobody would care though. As Mary stood by herself in the crowded space, the rest lay curled in their cot, fighting a raging fever. Taking a wet rag from a washbasin, she knelt at the newcomer’s bedside and began to wipe his forehead.
“Erm,” he murmured.
“It’s all right sweetie,” she said. “I’m only getting you cleaned up.”
“Sorry, I’ll try to be more gentle. I’m still not the best at this.”
His eyelids fluttered open, and Mary paused to let them roll around, taking in the new environment. She knew the question before he asked, “Where am I?”
“Hugh Elementary,” she answered. “Inside our cafeteria.”
“Elementary?” He blinked, and his bloodshot eyes flicked to her white gown. “That doesn’t make sense. You’re a nurse.”
Every patient thought that, since they’d given her an official Red Cross uniform to wear. Mary gave him the same answer she gave the rest, “I’m just volunteer.”
“Why aren’t you in a hospital?”
“Because they’re full, honey. Now,” she went back to dabbing his face, “no more questions, you’re burning up.”
“I’m burning – ?” A wet crackly cough stole the rest, shaking the man’s body. Red froth bubbled at the corners of his lips.
For a moment, all she could do was stare. Her grip on the rag tightened. Water driplets trickled from it. That unmistakable cough…for an entire day, since the moment she arrived, she’d been hearing that awful, unmistakable cough. It was so deep, so wet. Like a bark.
And it came with blood.
The man retched. Phlegm spewed across his chest. Mary grabbed a bucket for him to spit in, and he hacked until he flopped back onto his pillow, gasping.
“Burning,” he repeated. “That…that means I’ve got it.”
Yes, she thought. Yes it does.
But Mary didn’t say that. She hadn’t learned much in her one-day training with Dr. Lawrence, but he had mentioned the importance of calm. With so few people running the school’s medical operations, calm was vital, and it meant choosing your words carefully.
“You’re in a safe place,” Mary recited, word for word what Lawrence had told her to say. “Here, we’ll take care of you — ”
“Oh God, help me.” The man’s chest rose in quick, shallow breaths. “I had the chills a couple days ago but I didn’t think…because Ellie, she started with the fever, not the chills…”
The panic. Lawrence had warned her about that too, hadn’t he? About the realization that you were sick, and what happened with it.
“Sir, can you tell me your name?” she asked.
“Oh God. I’m gonna die, aren’t I?”
“My name’s Mary,” she said to dodge the question. “What’s yours?”
“Name…? Um, Evans. Ralph Evans.”
“It’s time to rest, Ralph. It’s all you can do now.”
“Ellie rested. Didn’t do her a damn thing.”
As he said this, his eyes flicked to hers. They were green. Astonishingly green. But their pupils were wide – dilated in panic. Trapped inside a rim of red. Framed by ghostly cheeks. Ralph sucked in a sharp breath that caught halfway through, and he sputtered, spit and phlegm webbing from his lips in stringlets
“I don’t wanna die,” he rasped. “It only got Ellie in a couple days. Oh, God help me, I don’t wanna die.”
Mary watched him quiver. Watched him sniffle. It struck her how child-like he seemed, wrapped and weeping like a small boy. “Ralph,” she said to break her thoughts, taking his hand, holding it tight so he couldn’t feel the quiver in hers, “we’re going to get you better. It’s what we do here.”
“My wife Ellie didn’t get better. Died last night in her sleep and I couldn’t take it. It’s why I had to get out, I had to get away.” Then Ralph did something Mary hadn’t seen before: he reached for his neck and began to scratch it, the nails digging deep, leaving red lines.
“Ralph?” Mary asked, her voice rising. “What’s wrong?”
Choking. It was Mary’s only thought as she snatched the bucket and pressed it under his chin, saying, “Cough, Ralph. Cough.”
He leaned over the bucket. Lurched with a crackly heave. Then he looked up, eyes wide.
“I can’t,” he croaked.
Two words. Just two, simple words and suddenly Mary couldn’t remember what she’d learned that morning. She took a deep breath, telling herself to stay calm, just like Lawrence had said — but she couldn’t.
Not when Ralph’s nails were leaving bloody streaks.
Not when he gagged.
Not as his cheeks turned blue.
“I don’t wanna die.” Tears streamed from Ralph’s green eyes, over his bluing cheeks, as he kicked his covers clean off. “Please, please, don’t let me die.”
It had to be the froth. Their lungs filled with it, part of the body’s way of fighting the flu…or something. Lawrence had explained it better.
“Lawrence,” she breathed, turning around, hollering across the hall: “Doctor Lawrence, I need you!”
No one burst through the far doors.
Her mind raced. What’d he told her? What’d he taught her? Mary did the only thing she could think of: she propped Ralph up, over her shoulder, and hit him across the back.
“I-I can save you,” she stammered. “Just cough.”
She made a fist and thumped the back of his ribcage. Ralph grunted. Gurgled. His shoulders rose — but only a little. She thumped again. Again.
“Lawrence!” she cried. “This is an emergency!”
Ralph shuddered, his breath whistling past her ear. Mary shifted him forward and tried to look him in the eye, but his had gone glassy. They seemed to stare beyond her.
“Honey, stay with me. Stay with the sound of my voice, the doctor’s coming. Okay?”
His lips parted, and his last word carried itself on a breathy, crackly hiss:
He croaked it, as if the mere syllable exhausted him to speak. Then, he gave a little huff, sliding backward and onto his cot. His head rolled to one side, mouth opening, stretching, until it resembled a howl. His tongue lolled out. Bloody drool oozed onto his pillowcase.
Mary reeled back, knocking into the cot behind her. He was dead. Sprawled on his back, his chin coated in red, as if he’d been shot and forced to choke on his own blood.
“I couldn’t save you,” she whispered.
The ache behind her eyes, an ache that’d been steadily gnawing at her over the hours, mounted into a heat. Ralph blurred; everything became a watery mess. Mary collapsed just as the door across the cafeteria slammed open, and was pulling herself up when a voice said:
Then hands were under her, hoisting her up. But Mary’s knees refused to hold her weight, and she went right back down again.
“Mary,” the voice said. “Look at me.”
She tilted her head back, groggily blinking Lawrence into focus. He was tall, bald, and dressed in a white button-down coat, thin-rimmed spectacles pushed to the top of his nose.
“How long have you been working?” he asked.
“Seventeen. Or eighteen. I don’t know — ” Her voice cracked. “Eighteen hours,” she said again, “is my best guess. No one ever showed to take my place.”
“You need to go home.”
PREVENTING SPANISH INFLUENZA IS BETTER THAN CURING IT
The posters littered the brick wall, their capitalized headlines screaming at a deserted street. Mary absently twisted her wedding ring while she walked it, ignoring the signs. Except one. It bore a famous red, white, and blue uncle, and he was pointing, with a headline that demanded:
I WANT YOU FOR U.S. ARMY
Trench coat bundled up, and mask tight over her mouth, Mary had to forcefully avert her eyes from it. She told herself to think about the nighttime air and how it refreshed her, how it brought her back from the haze that’d sent her to Hugh Elementary’s cafeteria floor. She passed a theater with its doors locked, a sign in the glass:
Closed Until Further Notice
By Order of the City
She imagined all the empty seating inside, swathed in darkness. Would it ever be filled with laughter again? With cheers at actors under the spotlight? Ever since Boston had gone quiet, shutting its doors against an invisible enemy, a person could only wonder about such things. The thrill of an opening night seemed the luxury of another lifetime.
Her apartment was only a few blocks from Hugh Elementary. The seven story building overlooked a park, and the half dozen or so shops around it had all closed for the night — if they’d been open at all. A lonely automobile sat parked on the curbside.
Its metal sheen gleamed under the street lights’ glare, bearing a name far too complicated to remember (a 1917 something or other). Her husband had won it in a dirty card game, and she’d never forgotten her slap-faced shock when he’d first rolled up in it, honking the horn with the top down. Shock had quickly become awe the afternoon they’d driven it through the countryside. What a wonder it’d been. The speed, the engine’s roar, laughing with John…
A luxury from another time.
Mary pulled the collar of her coat a little tighter. She pushed her way into the apartment building, taking the staircase slow, all the way to the fourth floor — and thank God not a floor further. Her knees popped with the climb; she kept the rail under a firm grip. Her lower back twanged, offering her a familiar pain that visited her more often than not the further she got from thirty. It’d been from all the bending. She’d have to be careful about that tomorrow.
At the top, Mary wasn’t sure which caught her attention first: the red card stickered to what typically was her front door, or the blue-suited police officer seated outside. He rose from his foldout chair, taking a deep breath before asking:
“Are you Mrs. Parker?”
Mary slowed. The man’s eyes were puffy, each shadowed by a dark half-moon that added decades to what seemed to be a young man. When she didn’t answer, he pressed on, saying, “My name’s Henry Phillips, I’m here from the Boston Police Department. Your building gave us a call earlier today. “
Her attention strayed from the officer, to the red card. She’d seen it before; there’d been a stack in Dr. Lawrence’s office. But how could one be here? At the door to her home? She’d left that world at Hugh Elementary. With Ralph.
“I’m afraid I’ve been stationed here for the night,” Henry said. “City protocol dictates I do, at least until we get the ill moved to a better facility.”
She approached the door, and was barely a foot from it when a muffled noise sounded from the other side: a cough.
“Ma’am, if you go in there I’m afraid you’re not allowed out.”
Mary gripped the knob, turning it. Before Henry had a chance to object again, she opened the door and stepped through.
Inside, all the windows were opened, and chilly October air flowed freely throughout the living space. It gave it a cold, foreign feel. Like the place wasn’t hers. A gas lamp sat on the center coffee table, casting its light across a familiar face.
She blinked. No, of course it wasn’t John. It was her son: Paul. He sat in the old armchair set against the window by the radiator, reading a book by the lamplight.
A shadow shifted across the floor, and Mary turned to Henry, now in the doorway.
“I’m sorry ma’am,” he said, though hardly sounding like he meant it, or that he was capable of meaning it. “You, um, have my condolences.”
Paul’s arms wrapped around Mary from behind, and she heard him blubber against her coat: “I-I panicked so I called the police because that’s what you’re supposed to do. It started this morning and I tried to make her better but it only got worse.”
As if on cue, it came again: the cough. It’d come from the leftmost bedroom. Edna’s room.
“No,” she breathed.
Paul pulled back, cheeks shining in the gas lamp’s light. “There weren’t enough doctors from the city, so they got one from Brookline to come over.”
Mary’s hand curled over her son’s wrist, and again she hissed, “No.” Because it wasn’t possible. Just that morning her sister had been fine. Fine. A little groggy, but who wasn’t at five in the morning? She’d eaten breakfast, folded the laundry, talked about the weather. Normal things.
Then Mary saw a quilt folded atop the kitchen table. Her mother had made it, but the thing was so stuffy, so heavy, that it stayed in the closet year-round — except that morning. Edna had had it over her shoulders. She’d complained about having chills.
“I’ll be outside ma’am,” Henry said.
Mary hardly listened, pushing past her son, to Edna’s room. She opened the door and looked in. The woman she’d grown with, schooled with, and whom she’d welcomed to Boston after their mother’s passing, was sitting up in bed with a bloodied rag against her mouth. Her forehead glistened. Her hair, normally in curls, hung in knots.
“Mae,” Edna rasped.
She’d called Mary that ever since they were little girls, but now the word was burdened under the breathy crackle of phlegm.
“How…how long’s she been like this?” Mary asked.
“Since after you left,” Paul said, now by her side.
How had she not made the connection before? Why hadn’t she asked? If Mary had stayed home she would’ve been there from the outset. She could’ve helped ease the suffering.
Mary started to step inside, but Paul held her back. “The doctor said she needed rest,” he said. “Fresh air too. It’s why he opened all the windows.”
“Edna,” she whispered. How could this have happened? They’d followed all the rules: avoid crowds and public gatherings, cover sneezes and keep clean. They hadn’t gone to the theater in over a month. They washed their masks. How? How?
Her knees weakened, and she swayed. Paul took her by the elbow, guiding his mother back into the living room, toward the old armchair.
“Mom,” Paul said, sitting her down, “I’ve been alone all day, and I’ve…I’ve been thinking about this place the doctor came from.”
From where? Brookline? Mary wanted to ask, but didn’t, because the will to talk just wasn’t quite there yet.
Paul sat on the coffee table’s edge. “They’ve got a hospital somewhere called Corey Hill. It’s brand-new, and the doctor said they’re revolutionizing the way they fight the sickness over there.” He leaned forward, grey eyes wide. “I was thinking we should take Auntie.”
“Yes. To Corey Hill. Believe me, I’ve thought about this all day. He said they’ve got a space out in the open where they have patients. There’s got to be more than enough room for Aunt Edna.”
Corey Hill, Mary thought again. She swore she’d heard that name before, as if it’d been mentioned among the few doctors at Hugh Elementary.
“But it’s guarded,” he said. “Quarantined, is what the doctor told me.”
“Paul I want you to listen to me, okay? I know you’ve thought about this — ”
“Yes and it could work. Because you’re a nurse. If you talked to them, maybe we could get them to let Aunt Edna in.”
She sighed, rubbing her face, the words she said next coming out slow and calculated. “What kind of guards did the doctor mention?”
“The kinds with guns.”
Guns, she thought. It filled Mary’s mind with pictures of dark, hollowed out barrels and gaping, soulless muzzles. The things they used across the ocean; the things that killed. Warmongering machines that did more than end lives, but broke the ones they left behind.
“So,” Paul said, “will you talk — ”
His half-smile of hope vanished.
“It’s not safe,” she said. “I will not put my sister in front of a gun.”
“You’re going to give up that easily?” He pulled away, backing toward the open window. He pointed at Edna’s room. “This is family we’re talking about.”
“They could shoot us.”
“But you’re a nurse, you wear their uniform.”
“I’m a volunteer and I borrow it.”
“Mom — ”
“That’s enough.” Mary rose, because sickness or not she’d never raised her son to question her this way. “Edna’s staying where she is, and so are you.”
Paul’s grey eyes — John’s eyes — met hers, and his lips curled into an identical frown. “I-I can’t lose her, mom. Not like…”
“Go to bed,” Mary hissed. “Now.”
He stayed put. “I’m not going to lose her,” he started again. “Not like…like…”
Her son flinched. In the low light, she wasn’t sure if he stared anymore, or if he’d fixed her with a glare. The only movement came from the wind flowing through the window.
“Okay,” Paul eventually said. “You won’t take her.” And with that final word he was gone, into his room, shutting the door.
Mary collapsed into the chair. She gripped its rests, digging her nails into it. The thought to head into her own room came, however the willpower to carry it out wasn’t there. Eighteen hours without breaks, sitting, or hardly eating did more than make you tired, it made you numb. She barely even felt her eyes droop, or her head sink into the cushion.
She’d rehearsed the memory a thousand times so it came with ease. The one of John sitting in this very chair the morning he’d left, where she’d found him, and begged for the very last time for him to stay. There were ways to escape the draft. Straight refusal was one option, fleeing across borders another. Canada, Mexico — it didn’t matter.
But John hadn’t seen it that way. To him this wasn’t just a war, it was the War. The one to end all others, and one he’d fight so Paul wouldn’t have to so much as touch a gun.
The ache behind her eyes, an ache that’d tormented her since the school, mounted into a heat. Mary rubbed them. Next time she’d seen John it’d been in her nightmares. In them, he’d be laying in a grassy ditch under a smoke-streaked sky, a hole in his chest from where the bullet had pierced, his mouth stretched into a howl because he’d died screaming, wishing for death to take him away. And it was because of her. Because she hadn’t said enough, thought enough — been convincing enough. She should’ve held him at the door — no, locked it so he couldn’t leave.
It would’ve saved him.
Mary relaxed into the chair as sleep stole her away. Tomorrow she’d stay by Edna’s side as long as possible, and if there was time she’d go down to Hugh Elementary again because they were so extremely understaffed. She’d save Edna, then she’d save the bedridden.
Save them like she couldn’t save John.
Mary awoke shivering. The apartment’s windows had been left open all night. Outside, the sky had grown grey.
And oh, her neck. She went to rub it, but the knot in her shoulder told her that wasn’t going to happen — a kindly reminder of yesterday’s eighteen hours of medical labor. As Mary sat up (preparing for whatever her sore muscles had in store) a piece of paper, folded into a haphazard square, fell from under her arm and into her lap.
She stared at it in the early-morning glow. The corners hardly matched up, and there was a stain in the back from where the ink had bled through. Had Henry put that there? If he had, it’d certainly been in a rush. Could it be something to do with...
The memory didn’t come, it sunk in: her sister’s coughs, the rag stained with red. It seemed a nightmare, but the surgical mask draped over the armchair’s rest reminded her that it wasn’t. Mary snatched the paper and quickly unfurled it, holding it to the window, wondering what on God’s name Henry had gone to do:
I took her to Corey Hill.
This…this was Paul’s handwriting. The same sloppy print.
Mary read, then reread, then rereread the scrawl. Not even as the possibility took shape could she bring herself to believe it. Until she realized how quiet the apartment was.
She got to her feet — grimacing — and hobbled across the living room. He didn’t do it, she thought on the way. Paul’s a good boy. He wouldn’t go behind his mother like this. But there wasn’t any light from under the door to Edna’s room, and no coughs sounded behind it. Mary turned the knob. She peered in.
Edna’s bed was empty.
The note crumpled in her fist, Mary went to her son’s room and flung the door open so hard it battered against the inner-wall.
Paul’s bed was empty too.
Guns, Mary remembered. The things that didn’t care who you were, or where you came from; the things that pumped you full of lead and left you there to die.
But…but how? How could he have gotten her out without being caught?
Officer Henry jolted when she flung open the apartment door. “What? What?” he stammered, looking around wildly. When Mary saw the dark half-moons under his eyes it all became unsettlingly clear: Paul had taken Edna while Henry had been asleep.
“Mrs. Parker? What’s wrong?”
Mary hobbled down the hall, grunting at the aches and pains in her thirty-three-year-old feet. Damn them, she thought. She hobbled quicker.
“Wait,” Henry said from behind. “Wait, you can’t…you can’t just leave.”
Mary ignored him. She had to know if Paul had done what she was thinking, because if he had, she might very well have seen her son alive for the last time.
Down the staircase, she managed two steps at a time, huffing by the time she burst through the apartment’s double doors. Henry couldn’t stop her. She’d gotten too much of a head start. As he rounded the last of the stairs, she was already on the curbside, looking at where John’s car had been parked for two months in the rain, the cold, and summer heat.
It was gone.
“Mrs. Parker.” Henry gasped, the double door clanging shut behind him. “You need to get back upstairs, now. There’s protocol to follow.”
“They’re gone,” was all she replied.
“What’re you talking about?”
Mary leaned on a nearby lamppost, rooting herself in the metal’s cold bite. She’d said “gone” when what she’d wanted to say was “dead”. In the same way John had been the moment he’d stepped off her threshold.
“It’s all my fault,” she said under her breath. “He left with her while I was asleep.”
“You mean your son? With…?”
Mary nodded, fixing her gaze on the road past the park. It vanished into a cluster of buildings, and, beyond that, to the city limits. Beyond that, farmland. Beyond that, Brookline.
Henry took her by the shoulder, turning her toward him. “You need to talk to me. Where exactly did your son take your sister?”
She explained where, exactly, they’d gone, though the moving of her lips and the words coming from them seemed far away. She didn’t blink herself out of it until Henry let go, headed for the police car parked a little further up the road.
“You’re going after them?”
He tipped his police hat, saying, “I’m certainly going to try, ma’am. If Brookline’s where you say they’re headed, then that’s where I am too.” With that last word, grizzled-faced Henry slid into the front of his car.
Mary didn’t move from her spot on the sidewalk — didn’t even shiver. Looking at the sky, her guess was that it had to be around 6:30. Hugh Elementary’s nightly shift would be at a close, and a handful of sleep-deprived nurses would be looking for replacements. They’d be needing her.
Henry’s automobile revved. Its headlights flickered on, their beams making the puddled asphalt shine. Henry himself vanished behind a dog-eared map.
I should be with him, she thought. Paul was her son, after all. Edna was her sister. But the bedridden at Hugh Elementary were also her patients.
Mary pressed the butts of her palms into her eyes. The bedridden needed to be saved — and she could do that. Edna needed to be saved — and she could save her too. She had a duty to both because she was one of the few lucky ones, she had the power to help.
In front of her, the wheels on Henry’s automobile were veering, moving it into the road. He wasn’t even looking at her.
The bedridden, she thought. Edna. Paul: who’d be staring into the soulless socket of a muzzle. What would John have thought of that? That he had died to save his son, only to have him taken by the very weapon he’d fought to destroy?
“Wait!” Mary cried.
Henry’s car jerked to a halt. She trotted to the side door and flung it open, sliding inside. In the driver’s seat, Henry gave her a look somewhere between a scold and surprise.
“You’re coming?” he asked. “I think it’s best if you stayed here.”
“They’re my family.”
“Ma’am — ”
“Please.” She looked him square in the eye. “If I don’t go with you, I’ll never be able to live with myself.”
Henry exhaled, unbuttoning his top collar and rubbing his face. He had every right to make her stay — she was an emotionally attached civilian. To bring her might compromise everything. However these were dire times, and rules that a man of uniform swore by were either loosened, or thrown out completely. Instead of chastising, Officer Henry twisted the steering and put on the gas.
She watched the city fly by, hardly seeing it. Her mind’s eye had taken over, and all she was capable of seeing was her son, on his back in the grass, mouth stretched into a howl, a hole in his chest from where the bullet had stolen him from the land of the living.
They never reached Brookline.
Henry pulled to the side of the road after Mary identified the automobile in the ditch as her husband’s. By the angle of the track marks, it was obvious it’d swerved, either from slipping on mud or because the machine had been guided by an inexperienced driver. Or both.
“Stay inside, I’ll check,” Henry said.
Mary was already shutting the door, so she didn’t quite hear that.
The automobile had fallen front-first. Its impact had been enough to bend a wheel, and crinkle a headlight, but other than that (to Mary’s relief) there wasn’t any major damage.
“Are they in there?” Henry asked.
“Paul? Edna?” She unlatched the door. “Are you all right?”
The entire drive she’d had horrible premonitions of discovering them unconscious, their foreheads bloodied from where they’d shattered through the windshield. Or worse: they would’ve already bled out and she’d find corpses. Mary opened the door. Looked inside.
Both seats were empty.
They’d escaped? Where? Mary glanced around. They’d left the city behind and were in farmland now. Besides a few foresty thickets, it was all mowed down, ruralized cropland. There wasn’t anywhere to hide.
“They’re gone, they’re gone, they’re gone,” she hissed, pulling at her hair. “Oh God, what kind of mother am I??”
“Mrs. Parker,” Henry said, pointing. “There.”
She followed his finger. The edge of shabby-looking old barn peeked from behind a patch of trees. Weather had worn its boards from brown to grey.
Mary climbed out of the ditch, pulling fistfuls of grass out on the way, and stumbled toward the old barn, shouting, “Paul! Edna! Are you all right?!”
No one answered her.
The coughs did.
Mary doubled her pace. They were here. There was still time. She hadn’t lost them yet — they could be saved.
She tore the barn’s padlock from the wood itself, snapping it off. Inside, everything stank of wet wood and decaying hay. Morning light filtered through the ceiling’s cracks, crisscrossing the stalls constructed into either side. In another life, they would’ve been reserved for horses, or cattle preparing to birth new life.
Now they housed Edna, who lay dying.
She lay in a pile of rotting straw. Its stiff, whitening strands curled around her face, and it horrified Mary how hard it was to tell the difference between them. She knelt at Edna’s side and gently touched her sister’s shoulder.
“Edna,” she said softly. “It’s me.”
Her lips barely moved, the air coming from them even lesser, though it was enough for her to make out the one word it carried: “…Mae?”
It sounded so frail. Far away. The stress of being moved must’ve exhausted her. Mary cast a look over her shoulder, at Henry, who stood in the open doorway.
“I’m so sorry,” Mary said, turning back to her sister. “This is my fault, I never should’ve let him take you. I should’ve kept a better watch.”
“Mae,” Edna whispered. “Listen to me.”
She leaned in.
“This was my choice. Mine.”
Hers? No, that couldn’t be right. It had to be the fever talking — maybe Edna was in a delirium. She’d seen that often enough at Hugh. Patients would get so distraught from their condition that they’d see people that weren’t there, and talk about events that’d never happened.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Edna went on. “You think I’ve lost it.”
Even at the threshold of death, she still had that sisterly instinct.
“Well, I’m not. Paul came to me after you’d gone to sleep. He told me his plan, and I agreed to it. Nothing you said would’ve changed my mind.”
“Why would you do that?” Mary asked. “You were safe where you were.”
Edna sighed. “Who wants to die?”
“This is not a way to live.”
“It was still a chance. And that’s all I wanted. Can you…can you blame me?”
The sound of Henry’s boot crunching on a pile of straw drew Mary’s focus away from Edna. “Is Paul here?” she asked him.
“I checked around back. Couldn’t find anything. Miss?” he asked, directed at Edna. “Where’d the boy go after he brought you into the barn?”
“Paul? Oh…oh I don’t know…”
The gunshot rang like a scream. Mary’s and Henry’s eyes shot to the open barn door. Outside. By the car. That’s where it’d come from. But who’d have a gun all the way out here? What’d they be shooting at?
“No,” Mary breathed. “No!”
She left Edna in the hay, racing outside all on her own, around the thicket, and staggered to a halt on one side of the ditch.
Her son clutched the newly discharged pistol. Even from across the ditch, Mary saw how much his hand trembled. The boy had fulfilled his father’s worst nightmare: he’d touched a weapon of war.
“Paul!” she shouted. “What’re you doing?!”
His head snapped in the direction of her voice. He clutched the gun a little tighter. Steadier.
“Put it down,” Mary said. “You can’t do this.”
He held the gun higher, saying, “You’re wrong.”
“Put it down, and come to me.”
“I need it to protect Aunt Edna.”
Mary glanced over her shoulder. Henry was on his way, halfway between them and the barn. “Aunt Edna’s not well,” she said, back to her son. “She needs a doctor.”
“And she’ll get one.”
“No she won’t.”
“You should’ve been there, mom. The way that man talked…it sounded like they were on the verge of a cure.”
“There is no cure!”
“There will be. And when it comes, I want Aunt Edna to be there to take it.” He raised the gun higher, the barrel pointed at the sky, finger on the trigger. “I-I won’t lose her. I promised her that last night before I took her.”
“Son!” Henry had finally caught up. “Listen to your mother and put the gun down!”
“No! I’m going, and I’m taking her with me!”
He wasn’t going to budge, Mary realized. This boy really, truly was his father, down to the defiance with which he spoke. A decision had been made. A promise would be kept. And what could she say to change his mind? What could she do?
Edna’s words echoed: “This was my choice. Mine.”
Mary blinked. Over the past couple months, she’d thought of every possibility, every counterclaim she could’ve made to John’s decision, despite the fact of the matter being that he’d already decided to go before she’d even woken up that morning. He’d made the choice, because it’d been exactly that: his choice. Not hers.
It’d never been hers.
The chilly morning breeze whipping her hair, Mary said a word she didn’t want to say, but had to, because she knew it was the only word with any power:
Her son, who’d had his lips parted and readied for another retort, closed his mouth. His grip slackened on the gun. The barrel dipped.
Henry looked down at her, and even in her periphery Mary saw the wide disbelief in his eyes. “What did you just say?” he asked. “You’re letting him go?”
Was she? Perhaps that’s what it meant to allow someone to choose their own destiny, and accept the consequences of it. Mary pressed on: “I won’t fight you. You’ve got too much of your father in you.”
“Parker,” Henry hissed. “You’re letting him get killed.”
Mary shut her eyes, wishing he hadn’t used that word.
“How could you find out about a place like Corey Hill and pretend it doesn’t exist?” Paul asked. “She’ll die if I don’t take her.”
“You don’t know that for sure,” Mary said. “Some beat it on their own.”
“What if she doesn’t? What if…what if I lose her…” Paul wiped his eyes with the back of his wrist, sniffling. “What if I lose her like dad?”
“Then you’ll have me. You’ll always have me, and don’t think for a second that I don’t feel what you do. Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder what it’d be like to have him here, with us. What he’d say. How he’d say it.”
Above her head, barren tree branches rattled in the wind. Paul watched his mother, then looked at his gun. He looked at her. His gun.
“Don’t forget what you still have,” Mary said. “But the choice is yours.”
Part of her wanted to say more, yet she didn’t. Mary took a step back and stood by Henry’s side. Together, they waited with baited breath to see if the boy would fire off another shot.
Together, they watched him drop the gun.
Mary didn’t remember crossing the ditch. Or pulling her son into her arms. It just seemed to suddenly happen: her being knelt next to the police car, Paul’s face buried against her shoulder, holding him while he cried.
“I don’t want her to die,” he sobbed. “I’m not ready for her to die mom.”
“We’re going to do everything we can, sweetie.” She smoothed his tufts of hair down. “We’re going to get Edna help. Sshh, sshh, it’s okay.”
Paul lifted his face. “I-I just really miss him. That’s all. I wish he’d…he’d come back. Every night I stay awake and wish he’d come back.”
She gazed at the lonely strip of road behind them, reminded of the pleasant Sunday afternoon when they’d gone driving. She’d looked into the eyes of the man behind the wheel and pictured them with laugh lines, because she’d decided then and there that she was going to grow old with that man. For them and their family, life was to have been one long drive. One seemingly endless Sunday afternoon.
“I know,” Mary whispered. “I’ll miss him too.”
“When am I going to be allowed to eat more than broth?”
“Once we’re sure the last of the fever is gone.”
Edna pulled the covers to her chin. “Doctor, I’m ravenous. Haven’t eaten anything solid in over two weeks. People aren’t supposed to live like that, you know.”
Dr. Lawrence raised an eyebrow at Mary. “Appetite’s an excellent marker for health. I’m sure your sister will be more than glad to make you something a little more substantial.”
Mary smiled. Edna’s condition had been rapidly improving over the past couple weeks. After she’d beaten the fever, her energy had returned in bounds, along with a certain rosiness in her cheeks — something Mary was particularly relieved to see. Color meant life, and after watching her sister skirt what came after, it’d been a welcome sign of recovery.
After he’d heard the ordeal Mary had gone through, Lawrence made it a point to periodically check up on Edna personally. “She’s fighting it,” he’d say after every visit, “and I’m wagering she’ll win.”
It wasn’t one he was apt to lose. As October had drawn on, the illness rate had declined dramatically. The city of Boston had dropped its closure orders, and word on the street was that the theaters were going to be flooded in attendance. People wanted to forget, and what better way to put away a nightmare than through escapist entertainment?
Even Mary’s volunteer hours had lessened. More often than not, she’d find herself having to stay out of the way of other, actual doctors. She didn’t mind the change in the slightest.
Lawrence and Mary turned. Paul had his head stuck in the doorway.
“Hello nephew,” Edna said, smiling. “You’d better not have more of that dreadful broth.”
“Doctor’s orders,” Lawrence chimed in. “I’ll be out of your way now. Mary?” He nodded. “Always a pleasure. Paul, I expect you’ll be in school again, soon?”
“Bulletin says October 21st.”
“Well that’s right and good. Study hard, do your homework, and maybe I’ll see you at a lecture in Harvard.” Lawrence tussled Paul’s hair on the way out.
“Bring the broth here, Paulie,” Edna said, reaching. “It isn’t gourmet, but I’ll take what I can get.”
While he did, Mary followed Lawrence to the door. “Doctor?” she asked, before he had the chance to slip out.
“I just wanted to thank you for coming here, and for teaching me earlier this month when I’d signed up to volunteer.”
“Oh, yes. Of course.”
She stepped closer, and in a low voice asked, “It won’t come back, right? The flu? Has she beat it for good?”
“Once the body tackles a disease, it tends to remember how to beat it. Your sister’s in good shape, and I reckon she’ll be up on her feet by Monday morning.”
“Will you need me at Hugh?”
Lawrence smiled. “Didn’t you hear the announcement? There is no more Hugh. We’re moving the last of the bedridden over to a hospital on the north side. They’ll be in good hands. As for the school, it’ll go back to being what it was meant to be.”
Normal. Things were going to be normal again. The idea seemed strange to Mary. “Thank you again,” she said. “I wish you all the best.”
“And I, you.”
With that, Dr. Lawrence was out the door and gone.
“Hm? Yes?” Mary found her son in the doorway to her sister’s room, an expectant gleam in his eye. “What’s wrong?”
“Wrong? No…” He chuckled a little, as if that idea seemed strange. “Aunt Edna’s saying she wants to go see that new show at the theater downtown. The comedy play? Not until she’s well enough of course, but I imagine the theater’s going to be a pretty popular place this coming week. Might be best to book tickets in advance.”
“Um, yes. Sure. I’ll see what I can do.”
“You put too much salt in the broth!” Edna teased from her bed. “It’s supposed to be a pinch! I thought I taught you better, Mae!”
She sighed, though it was with the faintest of smiles — her first in recent memory. The theater, she thought. What an idea that was. With all those actors under the spotlight, laughs at funny one-liners, hoots at women in dazzling dresses and men looking most dapper in their costumed suits. It was a luxury she’d nearly forgotten, and one she could now look forward to.
For just a moment though, Mary lingered on the doorstep remembering the man that’d once stood there and made a decision which altered their lives. When she was ready, Mary finally walked into Edna’s bedroom and joined the rest of her family.
I’m currently a student at the University of Iowa, majoring in English & Creative Writing. My favorite authors are the biggies: Stephen King, Michael Crichton, and J.K. Rowling. When I’m not reading or writing, I’m usually volunteering at the city’s local animal shelter or trying to be environmentally proactive (because every little bit counts).
Though I don’t have a website or portfolio (yet) here’s my Twitter handle: @NicholasGrzesik. If a website or portfolio should ever make its way into existence, the link would be there on my profile.