The influenza stole in upon like a sneak thief in the night. It prowled the white-washed halls of the [hospital], snatching up lives where it pleased. Iris had, of course, seen the grippe before. But this was a far stronger, more malevolent version of what she’d heard Mrs. Banning call “the old person’s friend.’ It fed indiscriminately upon the inhabitants of the hospital. One of the men it took was Abraham Wagner: Abraham had fought for all he was worth, but his already damaged lungs had made it a losing battle almost from the start. Tim, who’d befriended the gentle black man, wandered the corridors, totally bereft….”He’s the one who’d died, and it’s me what’s feeling like a ghost,” he said wearily to Iris one afternoon….
She worked over Fritz[, the German prisoner of war,] like a sinner trying to expiate her sin. She didn’t neglect her other duties or Archie – who, of course, had ceased to be a duty to her long ago. But every spare moment she had, she gave over to Fritz’s care. She bolted down her rations and barely slept. There were days when her vision was so blurred, she could barely distinguish one person’s face from another. Other times, usually at night, she saw with an eerie clarity the shadow behind the shadow, the soul within the most commonplace of things.
She was, Iris sometimes thought, between worlds, neither of the living nor of the dead. Early one morning, just before dawn, she felt a cold, gentle touch on her shoulder while she sat, half-dozing, at Fritz’s bedside. She jerked her head up and found herself staring up into Abraham Wagner’s deep-set brown eyes. He smiled at her, then at the boy, who was still after having been thrashing about most of the night in a fevered sleep. Iris looked up at the dead man fearfully, but he only smiled and, taking her hand in his, placed it on Fritz’s forehead. Iris gasped: he was still hot but no longer burning up.
Suddenly, Fritz sat up. His eyes looked beyond Iris. She turned and saw Abraham, still smiling, move toward the open doorway, where a woman stood waiting for him. The woman’s features were blurred, but she felt familiar somehow, just as the man outside the gates had. And there were other presences, more shadowy still, out in the hallway behind her. Like Abraham and the woman, they were silent; but Iris felt their pain and fear give way to wonderment, and her heart broke open inside as she felt some of that wonderment wash over her.
Fritz slumped back down onto the cot, but Iris knew from his breathing that he was going to be all right now. She sat there, exhausted but humbled and thankful for what she’d seen.
“Miss Amory.” The hand on her arm this time was warm and living. Iris jerked her head up from the counterpane. Dr. Blaine was gazing down at her, his green eyes kinder and wearier than usual, his clothes a tad more rumpled. “So you’ve been here all night.” He gestured toward Fritz. “How’s this fellow doing?”
“Better – I think,” Iris said, her brain still blurred and confused. Her eyes felt dry and gritty and her mouth even worse, as though she’d been licking out a dustbin. She started to get up, but there was a feeble tug on her hand. It was Fritz, his blue eyes battered and washed out like cornflowers after a heavy rain. “Danke schon,” he whispered. “You saved me. The black man, he would’ve taken me with him, but you stayed, and he took the woman instead.”
T. J. Banks is the author of Catsong, Souleiado, and Houdini, a novel for young adults which the late writer and activist Cleveland Amory enthusiastically branded “a winner.” Catsong, a collection of her best cat stories, was the winner of the 2007 Merial Human-Animal Bond Award. A Contributing Editor to laJoie, she has received writing awards from the Cat Writers’ Association (CWA), ByLine, and The Writing Self. She has worked as a stringer for the Associated Press and as an instructor for the Writer’s Digest School.
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