Summary: A 1830s boarding house, a mysterious tenant, and a gifted child share a common link in the emotionally battered time traveler on the second floor.
Genre: supernatural, friendship
Characters: Doug, Tony
Warnings: mentions of suicide and death, references to autopsies and historical body-snatching, dark themes, supernatural elements, set after "The Death Merchant"
"Tho' death, at some time or other, is the necessary and unavoidable portion of human nature in its present condition, yet it is not always certain, that persons taken for dead are really and irretrievably deprived of life."-Jacques-Bénigne Winslow
"Tell me the cause of death, Arthur."
The clock chimes uneasily behind him, each note hesitant as if dreading the next few minutes, the witching hour this Hallow's Eve, the hour in which souls are gathered, and men - like the poor twisted thing in front of him - die.
"Carriage accident." What's not torn of the man's flesh is dripping a brackish mixture of crimson and rainwater, and his stomach rolls, fighting to keep his supper down. A dollar for him to serve as the old man's assistant is worth the revulsion he felt when the men carried the body in and dumped it onto the floor, pocketfuls of grave dirt spilling out of the dead man's clothes across the clean, washed floor. Resurrection Men, they call them, and Arthur feels a chill as his eyes inch to the body's face, skin crawling as the stories his mother whispered in the darkness and the memories of All Hallow's Eves past crouching in the back of his mind.
"Good lad. Death would have been nearly instantaneous." His voice is tired but patient with the tone of a teacher, and Arthur focuses on that, trying to forget that in mere minutes he'll be watching the Doctor cut apart this body and study it.
The dead man wasn't very old, he decides, much older than Arthur but younger than his father was when the mineshaft collapsed, carrying him and ten other men a hundred feet straight down. His father had been fair when he scrubbed off the coal dust each night, yellow hair and blue eyes, fair as the moonstone his mother had worn the day she climbed the stairs to the attic and stepped off, a rope knotted around her neck. This man is dark, like some of the immigrants in the streets, hair the color of the night.
"Has the blood congealed?"
He snaps out of his thoughts and inches his fingers toward the man's hand, curled loosely and protectively against his chest. The gas lamp flickers over his head, throwing teetering figures against the wall, the Doctor's aged and bent form, his own, looming far larger than his meager height, and the bundle of bones and torn flesh sprawled in a tangle over a filthy blanket on the floor. The doctor's granddaughter's voice, sweet with the innocence of the very young, echoes from the room adjoining the hallway, and he can picture her, white fingers pressed to the smooth glass of the mirror, whispering two words over and over. He takes the man's wrist between two fingers, gingerly studying the vein. Something twitches beneath his skin and he jerks as the voice rises in the next room.
"Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary."
Arthur's breathing hitches, then settles into a normal rhythm, his hand reaching once more to the body on the table, this time laying his palm flat against the mangled chest, counting the seconds. There - faint and ragged but unmistakable, the upward struggle of chest muscles bringing in a whisper of air, fighting to move the stuttering heart. A droplet of blood runs across his skin and splashes onto Arthur's hand as he pulls back, staring transfixed at the pitiful man on the blanket.
"Dr. Worthington." The words come out high-pitched as his fingers stretch out, covering the worst of the wounds in a mockery of a bandage. "The body...he.. He's alive."
Nobody talks about the man in the skylight room. It's the best kept secret in the boarding house, or possibly the worst, because while no one talks about him, everyone knows he's there.
Not that anyone complains, because he pays his rent on time - an envelope neatly sealed and pushed under the door the first of every month, is quiet, and is almost never seen. The orphan boy runs errands for him now and then, and as far as everyone can tell he lives most of his days behind the closed door, within four gray walls, beneath a tiny, narrow window. I've been there six weeks when he moves in, and I only catch a glimpse of him, a stooped, limping figure all but lost within the folds of a too large cloak.
"He must be ill, poor man." Mrs Greenbaum says softly, pity filling her faded eyes, as the click of her knitting needles echoes in the room.
I don't lift my eyes from the firelight, watching it dance across the hearth and back again like an endless loop, ever widening and changing.
"I think he wants to be left alone."
Looking back, we drifted apart before he died, day by day like a spiderweb of cracks and fractures within a china plate, each unnoticed until the final, fatal division that shattered it all. We saw too much in the end, the Black Plague, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, the Killing Fields, and a thousand more years of hatred and slaughter, and he felt it all driven through a silent heart.
I didn't know then that the thing that saved him would ultimately kill him, even if I should have suspected, should have guessed if nothing else, that you can't take a mortal human heart and jolt it back to life with past, present, and future, time itself, and not expect consequences. I didn't think because there were people dying all around me, burying them with my own hands everywhere we went, and he was growing weaker, paler and more strained with every passing day.
By the time I noticed it was too late, but they had a microscope, a primitive version of one at least. I spent hours hunched over it, staring at his cells through blurred, sleepless eyes., and I didn't tell him, not that day or any other, even if he'd already known all along.
I couldn't save him. No one in that time could, because all the medicine and microscopes in the world wouldn't have been enough to keep his cells together. I told myself that when I asked Tic Toc to focus all their power on him, to transfer him home and leave me behind, that I was trying to save him, giving him a chance, because they might find a cure in time.
It was a lie. The truth was it was selfish, because I couldn't watch him die, because I'd seen too much death already, and my chest clenched everytime I looked at him, recoiling as if he was contagious. His worst fear was dying alone, like his father; I'd always known from the moment I landed on the Titanic to save him, and I saw it in his eyes as he faded away with the burst of energy from the Tunnel.
He died, I know, even if Tic Toc never told me because I was lost to them now, because it was grasping at straws to think they could have pasted his cells together, piece by piece, and made him whole again, alone because I wouldn't - couldn't - watch.
Mea culpa. My fault.
I pass the man from the skylight room on the stairs the next day, and his head is low, giving me only a glimpse of a too-thin face above a beard. He coughs when he bumps into me, and it sounds like it goes straight through his lungs, harsh and ragged. I reach out instinctively to steady him but he pulls back, continuing up without looking back.
"He don't like to be touched." I turn and the boy's standing there, hair in a gold halo around his head like an angel in a threadbare coat, one finger worrying a frayed edge of his sleeve.
"Who is he?" I ask quietly, even if I know it's none of my business. But I understand, because whatever this man has been through I've seen it and more.
"Don't know his name." The boy - Arthur, I remember - drags a sleeve across his cheek leaving a dirty trail. "He wouldn't tell us. Dr. Worthington calls him Lazarus 'cause he came back from the dead."
My chest clenches, spasming painfully. "Came back from the dead?"
Arthur leans forward, crooking a finger at me and lowering his voice to a whisper. "Got hit by a carriage, he did. And whoever hit him didn't want to get in trouble so they buried him. Thought he was dead. But the Resurrection Men came along, dug him up, and brung him to Dr. Worthington." His eyes dart around nervously. "You won't tell, will you, mister?"
"No one. I promise."
"He was still breathin', just a little. We worked on him for days. Dr. Worthington didn't think he'd live but I knew he would. His leg healed crooked and he's not got his strength back yet. But he looks a heap better than when they drug him in. I wish.." His face clouds. "He don't feel alive, he says. Like he's still in that grave. He's hurtin' and we can't fix it."
My chest twists, my eyes sharp and stinging. I turn away from the boy and hurry down the stairs, pulling my coat tightly around me.
In my dreams that night he's still here, alive and watching me. I sit across from him, and reach out, my hands passing straight through his, like air through water.
"I sent you to die alone." I tell him, and it sounds like a forced apology, weak and pointless. "You should hate me."
His eyes lift, and they're the same, like spilled ink across a page.
I see the man again two days later, and this time he looks at me for only an instant as I pass him, black eyes somewhat clouded and glazed with fever, looking as if a good wind could knock him down. There's something in his eyes that's familiar, a nagging sense that he looks like him beneath the lines of pain and I swallow it down, because it's only my mind again, playing cruel tricks.
That night as the coffee burns my fingers and the ghost of tobacco smoke from Mr. Weaver's pipe drifts through the grating in the floor, I wonder again if I could have done anything else, even if I already know the answer.
I could have stayed with him.
"I'm worried about him." Mrs. Greenbaum says over supper, and my head lifts only a fraction. "The man upstairs. He hasn't left his room for two days and Arthur said he didn't answer the door this morning." She reaches for her cane, then looks at me. "Would you be a dear, Douglas, and check on him for me?"
A refusal sticks in my throat and I give a faint nod as she thrusts the key into my hand. The stairs are dark, the lamp in my hand casting little light beyond my feet, but I find the door and open it after a knock gains no reply. I step inside and it's a narrow, sparse room, dingy gray walls and squeaking floorboards, dimly lit.
He's lying on his side in the cot. I roll him over and the arm on top flops over, landing with a thud against the floor. His chest rises and falls too rapidly, each breath wheezing in his lungs, the pulse against my fingertips racing. I tuck the ragged coat around him and slide my arms under him, one around his shoulders, the other beneath his knees, and climb to my feet, his head falling back limply. He twitches, a full body spasm that it takes me a full second to recognize as a shiver.
I carry him a flight down to my room, all too aware of the difference in temperature as the warmth hits my skin, peeling away the chill. I take him to the hearth, grabbing the quilt off my bed and bundling him in it. I chafe his hands, restraining my touch as I feel the sharpness of bone through the skin. He doesn't stir, mouth slack and gray with each harsh labored breath, and in the firelight I get my first good look at his face.
My hands freeze, body motionless, because even with the beard and the flush of fever I'd know him anywhere.
"Tony." It's not a question, or even a plea. It comes out as a gasp, and I don't even realize Arthur has entered the room until he comes up behind me, kneeling in front of us.
"You know him?" He twitches again and I come to my senses.
"Arthur, quickly, run fetch a doctor. Tell him to hurry."
He scampers away instantly, his footsteps echoing on the stairs, and I lay a hand against Tony's forehead, feeling the heat of his skin, my mind searching for answers, as if I can see through his skin to his cells, find out how and why he came back here. He twitches again, a weak shudder.
"Live." I say faintly, and the word rattles in my throat like a final gasp before dying, my chest constricted. "Just live and we'll figure this out."
It isn't a question but Dr. Worthington nods, rubbing a hand over the balding fringe above his ears.
"Will he live?"
"Might with the proper care. The charity ward is full, and Mrs. Beecham's baby is due..." He wipes his forehead wearily.
"He'll stay here. I'll take care of him." I look back at the bed to see Arthur kneeling there, staring down into Tony's face. He turns to look up at me, the firelight dancing across his eyes.
"He's going to live, mister." He says, and his voice is very old, like an adult in a child's body. "They fixed him before he came back for you. They put all his cells back together."
I open my mouth to ask him how he even knows what a cell is when Tony coughs, choking, and I'm by the bed in an instant, lifting him upright and supporting him as he struggles for air.
When I look up again Arthur is nowhere in sight.
Tony reaches the crisis at the witching hour, tossing fitfully, hands twisting in the sheets as the fever burns in him, sapping his strength. I sit beside him, head in my hands, and I try to pray, forgotten words and voiceless pleas.
His hand flails out and I catch it, feeling the heat against my skin. I don't know how long I sit there, but sometime, minutes, hours later perhaps, he falls into sleep, true sleep and not the restless tossing and turning from before. I tuck his hand under the quilt and touch his forehead. It's damp and cool, his fever broken. Each breath comes slowly but with less struggle, and for the first time I feel a flicker of hope.
We were like brothers once, not so long ago, and I was the one who pulled away, never Tony.
"You should hate me." I whisper.
I don't notice Arthur in the corner until he looks up at me, hair glowing in the light of the fire, and smiles.
"He don't." He says softly.
None of us see Arthur again. Mrs. Greenbaum fears the worst, that the streets which had stolen so many children's lives already have claimed another, but Dr. Worthington only shakes his head and turns away.
"My first case." He tells me when he listens to Tony's lungs and finds them clear. "A little yellow-haired boy who'd been struck by a carriage. There was nothing I could do, the poor lad was all broken inside. He lived only an hour. Then a year ago Arthur turned up at my door, looking lost and all alone, and I took him in. My eyes aren't what they used to be so I needed the help, and he could work miracles, that lad. I saw him take a little stillborn baby once and breathe life back into it. That was when I realized I'd seen him before, right there on my table, held him as he died."
"You're saying Arthur is.."
"A ghost?" He rubs the hair over his ears before tugging the blanket up. "Not in the common vernacular. And I was never certain. I only supposed. There's nothing to fear from death, Mr. Phillips. No vengeful spirits and haunted houses. But every once in a while I think there's so much to give inside a body that it...lingers, as it were. You can't explain it with science or medicine. Only here." He taps his chest. "Arthur had hands for healing. He would have made a fine doctor. That gift didn't just die with him. He gave it, one final time, right when it was needed." He lays his stethoscope in his bag. "In all my years I've learned not to question a gift when it comes, only to accept it."
My eyes drop to Tony, features peaceful in sleep, eyes closed, looking like a child beneath the quilt, frail and insubstantial. But he's healing. Arthur had been right, it seemed. Whatever Tic Toc had done, they'd fixed him. In time he'd become strong again, as well as he was before his heart stopped and restarted.
"A gift." I say with a faint wonder, as if it's spring and I've come back to life after a long winter beneath the ground.
And I accept it.