Edward is dead, and Junior is dying.

Outside the fortress that is Cook County Hospital there are all manner of things—a fire escape, the steeple of the church down the street. They cast long shadows which creep across her ceiling, evil fingers reaching to choke out the living.

Elizabeth is superstitious. Her mother always chastised her for this; good Irish Catholics believed in the power of the saints to intercede for them. Elizabeth still has her mother’s rosary, hanging from her vanity mirror in the home in Irving Park. But she doesn’t use it.

She is not a good Catholic. In fact, they are Episcopalian now. She and Edward found the little church through their neighbors, when she was pregnant with Junior. He was baptized there, in the white gown she wore at her own christening, because Senior has five brothers and two sisters and even Heaven probably does not know what became of his christening clothes. But Elizabeth’s, now Junior’s, are tucked up in the back drawer of the bureau in her bedroom.

The only Christening. Her only baby who lived.

She remembers green eyes and copper curls; fast, chubby legs that carried him through the house with such speed that he toppled over more often than not. Lungs that could wail at a volume that seemed destined to bring down the walls.

He grew up strong, like his father. The curls disappeared, and the chubby legs stretched into a gangly body that was caught between boyhood and manhood. Three weeks ago, like a man, he gruffly took over the accounts, looking at his father’s ledgers, no longer sneaking the Lucky Strikes with his friends, but instead choosing his father’s cigars. And perhaps it is because neither of them have really acknowledged that Edward is gone, but Junior still seems to be playacting. In his father’s hats and coats, Junior still looks as though he is playing dress-up.

He will die still a boy, and that is what hurts the most.

Elizabeth hears familiar footsteps in the hall, and she realizes the shadows have stretched all the way across the room, replaced with the soft glow that is the Chicago twilight—leftover sunlight and headlights and streetlights and moonlight all jumbled together.

The flaxen-haired doctor works only after dark. The other doctors come and go, and she knows why—this illness, this influenza, spares no one, especially the young and able men, as though it is to wipe all those who did not enlist to fight in Wilson’s war. If the young doctors don’t die, they run—to the country, away from the denseness of the city, where the influenza has them all by the collar.

But not this doctor.

She remembers how carefully he placed Edward’s effects into her hands, the way he moved so gracefully. How he was so still next to her as she sobbed, and the gentleness of his voice as he suggested that Junior would want his father’s effects. The way he sat with her, even though others rushed past them and he no doubt had other places to be, and by his sitting there, created an inhuman stillness and peace.

If she had to describe what she saw when she looked into his eyes that day, she would say it was pain. But it was more than that. The doctor looks like a boy himself—if she had to guess, he doesn’t seem to be but a few years older than Junior, but then he has to be older, to have gone to medical college. And yet, within that youthfulness is a weariness that transcends his age, a loss that seems to absorb multitudes…

His footsteps are quiet as he enters the room. His fingers land upon her neck—they are freezing, but then it is October and Chicago is hurtling toward winter like a locomotive. His sigh is long; he feels something he wishes he didn’t, she thinks.

She wants to ask what that is, but her tongue seems numb. Edward’s lips had gone completely blue with the cyanosis before he passed, and there’s just enough of Elizabeth left to remember this and wonder if she looks the same way to the doctor. As quickly as it came, the hand is gone, and the floorboards creak. A low sound comes from the corner, so quiet it is like a breeze.

Someone once told Elizabeth that in the final moments of life, people hallucinated, as though they were on opium. And maybe that is what is happening now, she thinks, because if she isn’t hallucinating, then the doctor is crying. Crying and talking so rapidly his voice is little more than a murmur and yet she can hear him—or maybe she is making it up, she isn’t sure. Something about not being good enough, about failing them, asking for God to save them.

“Save him,” she says, and her voice startles them both.

His hands are in hers so quickly it is as though she put him there with her words. And perhaps she did. Maybe this is what was meant when people said that dying people felt like they weren’t in their bodies. Maybe he moved normally, and it is she who is somehow in two places at once.

But he is there. And she can still speak. So she does.

“Save him.” She gestures toward the other bed, or at least, she hopes she does.

The hand, still cold, squeezes hers.

“I will do everything in my power.”

Her eyes won’t focus properly any longer, but he seems as startled by his choice of wording as she is. A doctor who cries, who looks so young and whose eyes look so old…

She grips his hand, with what strength, she isn’t sure.

“You must,” she manages, choking on the first words. “You must do everything…in your power.”

The eyes look down at her. They are such a strange color—a honey amber that she’s never seen before. She stares up at him, even though his face is blurred.

Is this what death is like? she wonders. Imagining a doctor who talks to God? Thinking these eyes mean anything more than just some strange color inherited from his mother?

She doesn’t know. But she knows that without her, her only baby will not win the fight. There must be another. Someone must take her place.

“What others cannot do,” she wheezes, “that is what you must do for my Edward.”

The icy hands are gone as quickly as they came, and the room is deathly still. Perhaps she has imagined that he was even here. Perhaps she has made him up all along.

But Elizabeth is almost dead, and Junior is still dying.

So as she breathes her last, shuddering breath, she hopes.


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