Somewhere in the north-east of Germany, the promise of rain lay heavy over the city's desolate cemetery.
A breeze scurried through treetops turned dry from yet another sweltering summer, covering the black earth below with dead leaves and skeletal-looking branches. Above, the sky was grey, forming a sea of thick clouds rolling endlessly over the crows' dominion below. A glum place, surrounded by trees and unfinished stonewalls, graves and deep maws in the ground that waited to become such.
Here, among the dead and abandoned, the smell of autumn and stench of death, a tall figure in all black crossed the cemetery's grounds with the stride of a man weary and yet familiar with the kind of terrain he walked on. The wind caught in his black overcoat as he went, his bad posture upheld by the help of his cane, looking neither left nor right; a devil, one might think, all long limbs, with a top hat and the face of a crow with eyes made of red tinged glass.
As he came to a halt in front of yet another pit, bigger this time, and a pile of fresh dirt next to it, his soulless gaze fell on a broad-shouldered man with a shovel in his grip and a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth.
Till turned halfway where he stood, two feet deep inside the massive grave he was digging, with his long bangs stuck to his sweaty brow and a leery look in his eyes. He mustered the figure at the edge of his work, shovel now stuck in the ground, with his weight leaning against the handle of it, and granted himself a moment's pause, muscles burning. Right there, death itself looked down on him with peculiar interest.
“Well, fuck,” Till muttered, picking the butt of his cigarette from his lips.
“Good day,” came the awkward response, muffled from behind the stranger's mask.
Till looked up again with a suspicious squint, smoke rushing from his nostrils, his thumb flicking at his filter, sending ashes into the pit as he observed the figure, just like the figure observed him. Till had hoped they were still far off from the inevitable, but the nightmare coming from the south was obviously in a hurry, and now it was here.
“I know your kind,” Till rumbled, he had heard about it in the papers, in the pubs, at the harbour. The stranger looked just like it had been foretold; eerie and fateful, with the beak of a bird, black as the night. A crow.
“They say death follows you.”
Finally, the crow moved his unsettling red gaze, let it sweep over the dreary cemetery that had clearly been erected in a haste. He looked on, another gust of wind swiping at his coat, taking note of the nameless graves, the lack of tombstones and flowers; there was no God here, no loved ones, no grief.
“I'm afraid death is already here.”
Looking up at the crow with a heavy brow and his lips pressed into a tight line, Till grunted in agreement. There was no denying that he was right. From what Till had heard, and considering the amount of work he had had the past couple of weeks, the plague had found their proud little city.
“Is this your work?” The crow asked, red gaze never leaving as Till left his shovel stuck in the ground to heave himself out of the pit.
He was strong, broad-shouldered, with a sturdy waist and worker's hands. His reward from working tirelessly, day in, day out. But Till limped, too; an old knee injury he would like to forget about, and hobbled over to the bucket of water placed near the pile of soil he had already dug up. Cigarette between his lips, Till gave his hands a quick wash.
“Yep,” he muttered past the filter, dragging some of the water up to his elbows. “All me. Wouldn't have it any other way.”
Coming back up, Till dragged his wet hands and forearms across his grubby sleeveless shirt, leaving wet stains and streaks of dirt across the sweaty patch covering his chest. He limped over to the crow, and offered his still glistening hand in greeting.
The crow stared at Till, unmoving and with his gloved hands resting on the silver handle of his wooden cane, before his masked face tilted down, studying Till's open hand as if he had never been offered such a thing, then looked back up. Silent.
“Fair enough,” Till concluded, retreating and resting his hands on his hips instead. It was unsettling, this mask; it left no room for any human expression to shine through whatsoever, and since Till wasn't very good with people to begin with, he felt a bit lost. He couldn't even make out his eyes.
“Well, can't say I'm a philanthropist either,” Till grumbled and turned, limping back towards his bucket and sitting down this time to wash the sweat from his neck and arms.
“Is that why you work alone?”
Till huffed, letting the very last drag from his cigarette rush from his mouth before he tossed the stub to splash his face, the bucket sitting between his knees. Smart as they may be, these academics sure asked some stupid questions, Till thought, dragging his wet hand down his face first, then through his loose strands of hair, pushing it all back and away from his forehead.
“No one wants to be a grave digger these days,” Till explained, forearms resting on his angled up knees, “too dangerous, everyone's falling ill. But the graveyards are overflowing with the dead,” he added, “and someone's got to do it.”
“It doesn't worry you?” The muffled voice enquired, curious, and Till couldn't tell whether the man behind that voice, behind the mask, was his age or older. In fact, he almost sounded younger. Just sadder.
Till shrugged, “It pays well.”
Till was a handyman, a weaver, a carpenter. Someone who loved using his hands and valued nature above all else. He did well with animals, less so with people, and he felt most at peace when he could sit outside his overgrown hut, read or try his hand at a little poetry. Even if it turned out more brute than elegant, he enjoyed the play with words on paper, and if it wasn't for his little daughter, that's all he would care about. Now, to provide for her and his estranged wife, he had to take the jobs no one else wanted. Gladly, grave digging was solitary work, and that suited Till just fine.
“Guess I'll be seeing you around then, Doktor,” Till said, having fished out a new cigarette from the pack in his trousers, his wet hair whipping sideways from another gust of wind as he looked up, unfazed by the cold and his still dripping skin.
“I hope not,” the crow said.
Till watched, intrigued, while the crow slipped his gloved hand into the many folds of his coat, then pulled out a handful of colourful herbs and petals. As some of it fell into the pit Till would continue working on soon, the rest got carried away by the wind. Bits of spices in green, yellow and red scattered on the ground, tumbled on, got stuck in the soil.
Till frowned, the cigarette forgotten, pinched between his lips, and only looked up when the crow passed him. The smell of mint and pure alcohol overwhelming any stench of decay Till had already grown used to.
“Wouldn't you at least tell me your bloody name then?”
He could see them now, the eyes behind the red glass.
Big and sad and utterly human.
Tick, tick, tick, the clock went.
Tick, tick, tick, along with the sound of an erratic pen on paper, noting down symptoms, treatments, names and dates in neat columns. The list of the patients and their diseases was long and diverse. From headaches to amputations, tuberculosis to stomach aches, general feeling of malaise to syphilis. They would all end up here eventually.
Turning the page to copy the next case in line, Doktor Schneider paused in his tracks, pen poised and rolling slowly between his thumb and forefinger.
Fever, aching joints, nausea, the report read from only a few days ago, seizures, rashes, blackened fingertips.
Dread filled the doctor's gut as he skipped through the measures taken, the medicine prescribed, the nurse's observations. Only a month ago they had not had a single case such as this one, but now patients with similar symptoms came in almost daily.
Tick, tick, tick, the clock went in the brown and faded green coloured office, counting down to the next poor soul's inhumane death, steadily and inevitably. Tick, tick, tick.
Eventually, Doktor Schneider began copying the details from the report, but with slower strokes of his pen, writing down the words deliberately, as he had done so many times now, always hoping for an epiphany to strike in between these hopeless recounts of yet another patient lost. Surely, this wasn't a head physician's task, but he preferred to be precise. Doktor Schneider needed to know exactly what was going on in his hospital; when and where and how.
Mors Nigra, he wrote at the end, his steely eyes with the pin needle gaze staring down at the name in disgust.
“Sir,” the door to his office sprang open after a hasty knock, ripping into the silence of the wind outside, the relentless clock in Doktor Schneider's room and his darkening thoughts. He dropped his pen, his other hand smoothing down the worry from his face as he looked up from his work, “Hm?”
“It's Doktor Lorenz, sir,” his tall assistant informed him, and Doktor Schneider could tell by the spark in his usually collected, calm assistant's eyes that he was intrigued by their guest, “He's here.”
“Thank you, Oliver,” Doktor Schneider said, his hand still absent-mindedly stroking at his features while he gave him a tired, thin-lipped smile, “Let him in.”
He had met this new breed of so called physicians at one of their faculty's last conferences, though to say he 'met' them was surely an overstatement. They had stood by themselves, secretive and elusive in their behaviour, the way they had looked at renowned doctors, almost as if they were bored. A haughty, disrespectful bunch, Doktor Schneider had decided, observing them from afar with suspicion. They had shown up all in black, with little crow pins on their vests, purposely distancing themselves from their so called colleagues wearing caduceus pins instead. Any doctor coming up to the group had been fobbed off with empty phrases and polite smiles. Doktor Schneider hadn't even bothered.
He had prepared himself to be met with arrogance the day he was informed via letter that the medical council had sent out a plague doctor to help the city with its current plague problem. Instead of being relieved to receive aid from an expert, he had felt threatened. What good had these doctors done? Looking at the plague's fast ascent from the south up to the north of Germany, not much. So what was it that they knew, that all the other physicians didn't? What made them so special, that they were allowed to just waltz into any respectable hospital and take over the reigns?
Now, the man entering his office took it a step further than that.
“Doktor Lorenz,” he said tersely in greeting, rising from his chair and taking in the peculiar appearance of his guest; as expected, Doktor Lorenz was dressed all in black, wearing the official attire of a plague doctor. What he didn't expect, however, was to come face to face with the crow's mask, the long beak and red eyes. This mask, ridiculous as it was, was usually only worn in heavily infested places, when in direct contact with the sick, not one on one with a perfectly healthy person, let alone a colleague. Its shape a relic, terribly outdated.
“You travelled far. Please,” Doktor Schneider gestured at the seat in front of his desk, his somewhat baffled gaze never leaving the eerie red eyes, “sit.”
He waited until Doktor Lorenz took his seat, set down his leather case and cane, before Doktor Schneider sat himself, suddenly hit with the sinus tingling smell of mint. It was so overwhelming his eyes started burning.
He cleared his throat.
“Is that,” Doktor Schneider started, his hand indicating at the mask, “Is that really necessary, Doktor?”
A long silence followed, during which Doktor Schneider wasn't sure whether he had offended Doktor Lorenz or whether he simply hadn't heard him ask. There was no facial expression visible for Doktor Schneider to gauge whether it was one or the other.
“It is, Doktor Schneider,” Doktor Lorenz replied eventually, muffled from behind his beak, with no explanation following.
What a strange fellow, Doktor Schneider wondered, eyeing the other with slight suspicion, waiting for him to elaborate, but he just sat there, and so Doktor Schneider leant forward, forearms resting on his desk, his hands folded.
“Right, then,” he started anew, “What do you need from me? The letter said you would come to aid us, but I'm not sure what that entails, how you go about your work,” Doktor Schneider smoothed his fingers over his pencil thin moustache. “What's the first step?”
Doktor Lorenz reached inside the folds of his black coat, sending another wave of mint right across Doktor Schneider's desk, and retrieved a little black notebook from a hidden pocket. Doktor Schneider watched black medical gloves open a marked, blank page and remove a small lead pencil from within. Meanwhile, the rain had grown into a serious storm, nearly drowning out the ticking of his clock.
“I'll need the full picture,” Doktor Lorenz said, pencil poised and ready, “Recounts of your pestilence cases, past and current, what measures have been taken. What is your most common procedure? What medicine has been prescribed? Please,” Doktor Lorenz paused and nodded once, “as detailed as possible.”
“Of course,” Doktor Schneider sighed, leaning back again to pick up the reports he had been working on, and flipped the book to its very first page.
Over the course of nearly an hour, Doktor Schneider led his peculiar guest through every case known to his hospital, mentioned every name, age and occupation of the patients already lost and currently infected, recounted symptoms and their limited ways of going about trying to heal the sick, or rather lessen their pain and suffering.
He couldn't shake the unease he felt towards Doktor Lorenz, all the while eyeing him with secret distrust, shooting suspicious glances Doktor Lorenz' way as he scribbled down facts, fast and efficient, page after page. As inept as he had been upon greeting, he was surprisingly to the point now, asking questions in a way that felt almost monotone to Doktor Schneider, as if all the talk about this horrific, frightening sickness didn't bother him at all.
As it were, Doktor Schneider knew of three ways in which the plague could strike.
All of them started with flu-like symptoms, with fevers, weakness and headaches. The first kind took the longest, eventually building the common black buboes on a patient's body, mostly around the neck, armpits and groin area. Painful lumps, filled with blood and pus, that, once they seemed to fall apart, had the patient die within hours. The second kind, so Doktor Schneider hat witnessed, ended in blackened extremities, the death of tissue, and shock. And lastly, the third kind, undoubtedly the deadliest, sat in a patient's lungs; an ugly, horrifying death, if Doktor Schneider had ever seen one. It was a rare course, but undoubtedly linked to the disease that had befallen the city, as even tuberculosis wasn't as bad as this.
If only he knew what to look out for, if only he knew what enemy he was fighting, maybe they'd stand a chance, but as it were, none of the medical articles he had read had had even the smallest inkling. All speculations, one wilder than the next, stepping further away from a plausible explanation with each passing day. Soon, he feared, all reason would have left them, and then, well, they had only God to blame.
“We have cleared out an entire wing for our pestilence patients,” Doktor Schneider said, closing his leather bound book with care. “As advised by the medical council, we keep the diagnosed quarantined. In a smaller, separate part of the wing we keep the cases we suspect to be pestilence cases, but which haven't clearly proven to be such, just to be sure.”
Doktor Lorenz nodded in acknowledgement, still scribbling away. When he was done, he looked at his notes, flipped back a few pages, and marked the one he had started with with his pencil before putting the notebook back inside his coat. He sat for a moment, still and contemplative, so long almost that Doktor Schneider felt inclined to ask whether everything was alright. He only raised his eyebrows eventually, puzzled.
“Have you heard of something called an antibiotic, Doktor Schneider?”
Doktor Schneider frowned, his hands once more resting folded upon his desk, his mind struggling to remember an article or seminar during which he might have heard of such a thing. He couldn't recall, his folded fingers tightening in unease to admit his ignorance in front of someone he wasn't sure he wanted to trust.
“No,” Doktor Schneider pressed out, his brows knitting further, “I'm afraid not.”
In answer, Doktor Lorenz leaned over the side of his armrest to open his black leather case. It didn't take much rummaging before he came back up to place a tiny flask with a clear liquid upon Doktor Schneider's desk.
“This... is an antibiotic,” Doktor Lorenz announced, and even though what he was about to reveal was nothing short of miraculous, he sounded tired. “It's capable of curing various bacterial infections, such as pestilence.”
He had said it so calmly, so straightforward, that Doktor Schneider almost had trouble to catch up with what he had heard. He stared from the flask up to Doktor Lorenz and back down again, shocked.
“Almost,” Doktor Lorenz agreed, his hunched over posture worsening as he leaned forward to stare at the unassuming liquid himself, like a large crow watching something rather peculiar. “Antibiotics come in many forms, each of them difficult to harvest. Frankly, we're still in the midst of trying to narrow it down.”
Doktor Schneider's throat worked as he stared at Doktor Lorenz, his head filling up with questions, and fast, not knowing which he should ask first. Something inside him wanted to feel joyous, an ember of hope coming to life inside his chest, but then there was Doktor Lorenz' nonchalant attitude, and a rage built inside of him regardless.
“You are certain it's a bacterial infection?”
“Quite,” Doktor Lorenz confirmed.
“Then why isn't this known? Why is no one talking about this, why am I hearing this from you?”
“Because it's not for the public to know, not yet–”
“I'm not the public!” It burst from Doktor Schneider, his voice tinged with indignation. He wasn't known to be overly emotional, but to have been so helpless in the face of something he was supposed to fight, that he and his doctors and nurses were practically useless, watching people die every day, had worn him thin. “I've been fighting this disease from day one, we're out here searching in the dark, and then you come in and tell me you have a cure?!”
Even with the mask, Doktor Lorenz looked uncomfortable.
“Where were these‒ these antibiotics, when I reported the first outbreak in this city? Where was this cure when it reached Hannover? Köln? Nürnberg?”
“I-iiit wasn't ready.”
Doktor Schneider stilled in his rage, frowning at the man he thought he had just heard stuttering.
“Still f-far from it,” Doktor Lorenz went on, suddenly a bit steadier again now that Doktor Schneider had paused.
“Harvesting antibiotics takes time, it can be part of a fungus, of soil,” he halted to produce a letter from his bag and placed it upon Doktor Schneider's desk, taking the flask in turn. “It's a delicate process. Read the letter when you have the time, Doktor Schneider, it explains the hows and whys.”
Doktor Schneider snatched up the letter.
“We'll have to harvest it ourselves, I'm afraid,” Doktor Lorenz went on, “If you can spare it, I'll need a place inside your hospital to do so. Maybe a couple aissistants, preferably with some knowledge in basic chemistry. Once we have enough, we can start testing it on the infected... The-the ones that are willing, I mean.”
Leaving the letter yet unopened, Doktor Schneider turned the envelope in his hands, slowly letting his anger dissipate, though he could still feel the tension twinge between his brows. He felt disappointed, almost deceived. How could the medical council have kept this from everyone? In a desperate time like this, shouldn't have every medical institution been alerted, stocking up on these various kinds of antibiotics where they could? After all, time was hardly at their disposal. And to think that these plague doctors held advanced knowledge over everyone else... Doktor Schneider despised the thought.
And yet, now that all that information sat in his palm, he felt too prideful to open it right away, to ask, to willingly turn himself into a student.
“Fine,” he agreed, tight-lipped, and put the letter into the front pocket of his white doctor's coat. He would study it later. Knowledge on bacterial infections was still in its infancy and usually only detected after the fact, when it was evident in the bloodstream. Once a bacteria had found a home in its new host, it replicated; either the body could fight it off on its own or the patient had to succumb to it. That was all Doktor Schneider knew.
“Would you mind,” Doktor Lorenz started quietly, reaching for his cane with a grip that kept readjusting around the silver knob, “showing me the quarantined wing?”
“Of course,” Doktor Schneider nodded, his mind occupied, sifting through what knowledge he had, and rose from his seat with heavy shoulders. Doktor Lorenz followed, taking his case and heaving himself to his full height, which, even hunched, made him taller than Doktor Schneider was.
“After you,” Doktor Schneider said, once by the door, holding it open for his colleague to pass through, but he stopped.
What was it now, Doktor Schneider thought, finding these recurring odd pauses irritable, to say the least.
“Do you believe in God, Doktor Schneider?”
Taken aback by this rather personal question, Doktor Schneider followed Doktor Lorenz' gaze up towards the unassuming, simple cross right atop his office door. He wouldn't consider himself a devout Christian, but he did posses some form of faith. A medical man he might be, but Doktor Schneider didn't consider himself above the divine.
“To a certain extent,” he answered, rubbing the door handle with his thumb as he kept a straight spine, “Don't you?”
Doktor Lorenz's eyes fell on him, and he could see them now, behind the red glass. There was no arrogance there, none of the scorn he had seen on the other plague doctor's faces. This man looked tired, and infinitely sad, boring into Doktor Schneider's own eyes as if he was looking for something that would help him understand.
Tick, tick, tick, the clock went.
Then Doktor Lorenz left through the door.
Nowhere else did Lorenz feel as conflicted as he did in a hospital. To him, it was both a sanctuary and a nightmare, a house of terror as well as a safe harbour. That never changed, no matter which hospital he entered, no matter in which city, which country. A hospital was always the same. The one he had been to as a child in Berlin was just like the one he had studied at in Paris, or the one in Münster he had been assigned to last. They had all been imposing, prideful buildings, with long corridors and white beds, smelling of antiseptics and sickness. Just the colour of the walls would differ, the faces of the doctors and nurses. Yet the screams were all alike, no matter the language.
As he followed Doktor Schneider down the halls and staircases, listening to directions and explanations, his gaze hardly wandered. It wasn't exactly state of the art, this hospital, but it made do with what equipment and finances it possessed. Lorenz could tell that Doktor Schneider took great pride in his work, that he led this hospital with a strict but fair hand. Lorenz had met head physicians who had cared much less than that.
“This way,” Doktor Schneider said eventually, leading the both of them inside a wing that was clearly older than the ones they had passed through before. White halls turned a pale yellow as soon as they went through a heavy wooden swinging door. The lights were dimmer here, the sound of his cane loud against the hardwood floor. The personnel meeting them all seemed to be in a hurry, no longer chatting or idling in the corridors, but silent, wearing face masks. With that observation, Lorenz watched Doktor Schneider produce a face mask of his own to hold it loosely over the lower half of his face.
“Our quarantine,” Doktor Schneider announced, though without a single note of grandeur in his voice. In fact, he sounded rather grim as he gestured towards their make-shift quarantine, its vintage-looking lobby at the centre, just where they stood, then pointed out towards one of two more corridors; both separated from the lobby by old glass doors with wooden frames, the white paint chipped and cracking.
“To the left we house the cases yet to be diagnosed, to the right... are the ones we're a hundred percent certain have caught the disease,” Doktor Schneider explained, nodding towards the left corridor. Lorenz followed.
“If your time allows it, maybe you could help us find the tell-tale signs, Doktor Lorenz. Knowing what I do now, I'd say the earlier we catch on to the spreading bacteria the better.”
Lorenz only nodded, now for the first time actually taking note of the rooms they passed. It was only a small hallway, reminding him of the very old buildings he used to have his medical training in, with two rooms along the left side of it and three to the right, housing about four to six patients each. Most were bewildered to see him, some shocked, and one woman simply started crying at the sight of a plague doctor walking past. Doktor Schneider hurried ahead briskly.
“My assistant, the medical intern who brought you to my office, helps me supervise this area,” he stopped at the very last room, posture exuding authority as he spoke lowly into his face mask, “He's a good observer, I'm sure you'll find his notes helpful. I'll see to it that we have them copied for you.”
“Thank you,” Lorenz muttered, looking on into the room with its six occupied beds, while Doktor Schneider informed him on the daily routines, the strict measures of hygiene taken to keep this place as safe as possible, and how hard his nurses worked to keep everyone comfortable and taken care of. It's not like Lorenz hadn't heard it all before, the scrambling for a solution, the strict rules, the attempt at something that was utterly hopeless. Every new city he had visited, they had all falsely thought they would be the ones to catch up to the disease, but what none of them had been ready to accept was the fact that once the plague had arrived, there was no outrunning it. That when he rode in with his black caravan, it was usually too late.
In that regard, the common people were right to cry and curse when they saw him. Lorenz was used to it. And so, when his gaze stopped to pause on a man with dark hair and a hard stare, just there on the right, on the far end of the room, sitting up in his bed, he wasn't surprised. There was distrust in those eyes and a stubbornness in his clenched jaw. Surely, this man had already decided to despise him.
“‒make room for a lab downstairs, it should be ready by tomorrow morning‒”
“'Scuse me, coming through!”
Both doctors straightened in surprise, making way for a young man with a beaming smile and a mop of blonde hair that rivalled it, squeezing through the door with two cups of steaming hot tea.
“Herr Landers,” Doktor Schneider all but sneered, looking at his watch, “Are you sure you'll be finishing your tea before visiting hours end?”
“Why, I'm not leaving!” The chipper man, still nearly a boy, replied without offering the head physician so much as a glance, bright eyes solely on the dark haired patient at the far end, who, within a second, stopped his staring and softened immediately, receiving his tea with a muttered thanks.
“You can't stay here,” Doktor Schneider said in a way that told Lorenz that this wasn't the first time they had had this discussion. He went after Landers with quick strides, pulling out another face mask from his coat's pocket and nearly flung it into Landers' face, “How many times have I told you to wear one of these, Herr Landers? It's of utmost importance that we all abide by the hygiene protocol in this hospital‒” - “Pshh,” Landers scoffed, having slipped off his boots as he sat by his friend's bed and propped his crossed feet up on the mattress, his bright smile slipping off into mild scorn.
“It's just the flu, I won't die from it, will I?” Setting aside his cup of tea, however, Landers relented and picked up the face mask lying in his lap.
Doktor Schneider looked around at the other patients with haste. Some slept, had turned away or pretended not to hear as he turned back around to the pair, “It might not be just the flu, Herr Landers, and you know it. Be sensible, I beg you.”
“Fine,” Landers sighed, making a show out of how annoyed he was to put on the face mask, then shrugged. “There. Hope you don't come running back in here when I have to lift this thing to drink some of that tea I just brought.”
“Paul,” the other man cut in gently, trying hard not to look too amused, and he didn't need to say more than that to get Landers' full attention, “Be nice.”
“I am nice! I'm the definition of nice. Now drink your tea before it gets cold,” Landers urged him, totally dismissing Doktor Schneider's presence to lean over and pick up his own cup again.
Lorenz' gaze lingered on the pair from where he stood. A friendship wasn't something he had been able to entertain in his adult life, always solely focused on his work, on gaining more knowledge instead of investing in another human being. It was just as well, he couldn't say that he was a particularly good friend, or good with people in general, nor did he have the time. And yet, despite his lack of experience, he could recognize a deep friendship when he saw one. Or rather, the mystery that surrounded such an abstract bond. Something that couldn't be measured, weighed or put into a scientific set of rules.
A familiar, dull spark of curiosity kindled inside Lorenz' mind, wondering what it was like, but it was only a fleeting thought. There was nothing else that he could possibly need or want in this life. There was only knowledge, the safety he felt around his instruments, the chemicals he was familiar with, his books. Constants, reliable and true.
“This way, Doktor Lorenz, before I lose my patience,” Doktor Schneider muttered on his way out, clearly frustrated by the insolence he had been met with.
They left, and exchanged the hushed whispers and slivers of hope with cries of agony and the stench of pus one corridor over. Lorenz had heard and smelled it all before. He was by no means a heartless man, but he couldn't remember at which point he had turned numb to the screams, the retching and wailing. Fear was a feeling Lorenz was all too familiar with, and yet he had found there was no room for it in his line of work. His fear was private, it came at night, in bed, when he was alone with his thoughts. Fear came when he wasn't working—
“Morphine?” Lorenz asked, walking through the biggest room he had seen yet, following rows of beds, patient after patient, and looked at the nurses administering shots to various pain-stricken bodies.
“Yes,” Doktor Schneider muttered, the scene before him obviously causing him unease, the cries yet reaching his heart. “It's all we can think of at this stage. No matter what we tried, they die right under our hands.”
There were well over thirty patients in this part of the wing, women and men alike, even a few children. Some were barely responsive, likely hallucinating, others were crying, coughing up blood. He could see the darkened extremities on some, the swollen black-looking lumps on others. Every single one of them was going to die, Lorenz thought as he scanned the hall. None of these poor souls would ever leave this place alive.
“Have you tried cleansing this hall with sage, Doktor Schneider?”
The head physician tore his gaze from his delirious patients to look at Lorenz with blatant confusion in his intelligent blue eyes, clearly taken aback by the suggestion, “Cleansing? Why‒ No?”
“Bloodletting via leeches? Or feeding them wine-soaked bread?”
Doktor Schneider straightened visibly, his sneer audible despite the mask, “What you are suggesting is very old-fashioned, don't you think, Doktor Lorenz? What good will it do?”
It was indeed old-fashioned, and Lorenz wasn't unaware. On the contrary, he had studied the miasma and humorism theory just as diligently as what he had been taught about modern medicine. It couldn't hurt, he had thought, to try and understand what physicians and philosophers of old had considered to be true so many years ago. Maybe there was some truth in it still, and in his line of work, as advanced as it was, he actually couldn't afford to dismiss even the unlikeliest of possibilities.
“Not much,” Lorenz admitted as he readjusted his grip on his cane, “but cleansing the air will help them breathe, the bread and wine will soothe their blistering mouths and the leeches will lessen the pressure under their skin.”
Lorenz watched the defiance deflate from Doktor Schneider's shoulders, the last of it sitting in his clenched hand, thumb rubbing thoughtfully over his gloved knuckles. He turned to look across the sea of beds, nearly all of them occupied. It wasn't a solution, as the medics of the past had believed, but it was the kind thing to do, maybe even more so than shooting them up with a drug and waiting for death to come...
“Why the leeches, for god's sake,” Doktor Schneider muttered behind his mask.
“If your hands are steady enough to cut open bacteria-infested lymph nodes without giving them reason to burst,” Lorenz began, turning away from the scene with the sound of his cane, “be my guest, Doktor.”
It didn't take long for Lorenz to get settled.
With his caravan just outside the city borders, situated among merchants, musicians and vagabonds in a make-shift community of their own, things started out the way they always did; Lorenz refused the city's offer to house him, spent most of his day in the hospital and meticulously studied all the information Doktor Schneider was kind enough to provide him with.
Forthcoming as the head physician attempted to be, there was a lingering animosity there, and while Lorenz had been aware of it from the moment he had set foot in Doktor Schneider's office, he didn't bother trying to find out why that was exactly.
He had never been well-liked, not as a child, not as a young man, and certainly not now, doing what he did. Lorenz had found himself lacking the day he had come into this world, and life hadn't stopped reminding him since. With a shoddy immune system, an embarrassing speech disorder and awkward social skills, he really hadn't stood a chance. That Doktor Schneider would fall in line with most of the people Lorenz had met in life really didn't come as a surprise. Something about him was clearly off-putting, and he had learnt to accept it.
However, Doktor Schneider was precise in doing exactly what Lorenz had suggested, instructing his nurses and having them adapt to new routines all around their quarantined wing. Patients, no matter how close to death, were fed with bread and wine as long as they were able to swallow, while apothecaries all across the city were commissioned to find all the sage and leech supplies in the area.
In the meantime, a sterile laboratory was set up in the deep vault of the hospital; a clammy but quiet place, with enough room to start harvesting the antibacterial agent needed to stop the plague from spreading. A process that would likely take more time than they had, but it was all Lorenz was capable of doing at this point in time. To provide the city with the knowledge and the means for the procedure, and to hope that they would hold out long enough to save at least a third of their population. A grim prospect, but it was all Lorenz could hope for each time he had lead his horse out of an overrun city and on to the next; trying to beat death to it, yet always finding him waiting at the next city gate instead.
Now, only a few days after his arrival, Lorenz found himself overseeing the part of the quarantined wing still holding out for a miracle. Every room he passed, nurses and medical assistants were closely following a protocol Lorenz had compiled only shortly after meeting his first few pestilence cases, and which he had honed to perfection since. A guide made up of considerably more steps than simply waiting for a fever to strike.
“I have checked the patient's lymph nodes, looked for rashes and listened to his chest,” Doktor Schneider's medical assistant Riedel recounted, meanwhile scribbling sharp little check marks on his patient's protocol. Lorenz nodded, keeping his gaze away from the boy on the bed, who dangled his feet over the edge of it, listening.
“So far, I detected a mild cough – an inflammation of the bronchial tubes – and a persistent headache. There is some swelling below his jaw, but nothing that would be out of the ordinary considering it might just be a case of bronchitis,” Riedel continued, sounding assured in his diagnosis, yet looked up at Lorenz from his seat in front of the bed, as if asking for confirmation.
“What treatment do you suggest, Doktor Riedel?” Lorenz asked, his voice muffled through the beak of his mask.
“Further check-ups, at least twice a day. A sputum test, and lots of fluids.”
“Very well,” Lorenz nodded once more and watched as Doktor Riedel offered his patient a reassuring wink and a playful tug on his toes. The boy giggled. Then Lorenz moved to pull back the curtain that had shielded the procedure from the room.
“Hey! Heyhey! Doktor Schnabel over there, us next!”
Landers was already halfway across the room and eagerly waved them over, pointing towards his friend with the distrustful brow and raven hair. He looked a little more tired than when Lorenz had seen him last, but anyone would have a hard time finding proper sleep in a place like this. The nights usually felt longer, and the bleak hallways and old doors did little to keep the wailing from the dying on the other side of the wing at bay.
His friend, however, proved to be as much of a nuisance as Doktor Schneider had warned he would be. His constant chattering and fits of laughter could be heard no matter which part of the wing Lorenz happened to be in. He seemed to be the first to visit and the last to leave, no matter whether it was a weekday or the weekend. Whether he was allowed to or not. And yet, even when he could hear Landers come whistling down the corridor or hear him hastily apologize for knocking something over yet again, Lorenz found it was a welcome distraction from the usual sounds, the crying, coughing and quiet murmuring. There was hope in the way that the young man recounted stories for everyone to listen to, warmth found when he started to belt a pub song that everyone knew the words to...
“Not you,” Landers frowned, and dismissed the much taller medical assistant with an impatient wave of the hand, then pointed straight at Lorenz, “We want the expert, okay?”
“That's alright,” Doktor Riedel assured Lorenz, who could tell that the young man was smiling behind the mask. There was never anything else but gentle patience in his eyes. That, and a hunger for knowledge. Lorenz was sure he would make a fine doctor in the future. That was to say, if he survived the plague.
“I'll just move on to the next patient, Doktor Lorenz.”
They parted, and even though it felt like Lorenz didn't have much of a choice in the matter, he followed willingly. At the foot of the bed on the far right, and under a relentless hard stare, he came to a stop. Richard Kruspe, it said on the chart, aged 26, born on June 24th. No current address. Originally admitted with a severe headache, aching joints and a fever that kept on climbing, slowly but surely.
“Richard. My name is Doktor Lorenz,” Lorenz said, and noted Landers sprawl back onto the hard stool they had provided him with, seemingly turning it into his throne has he beamed up at Lorenz with his hands folded behind his head, listening with glee. “Would you mind if I conducted today's examination on you?”
Richard's eyes were sharp and watchful, his jaw set, and his hands squeezed into tight fists against the blanket. His body language screamed distrust, whether at Lorenz personally or the procedure as a whole, Lorenz wasn't sure nor did he care. It was the clarity in Richard's eyes that interested him, the lack of cloudiness despite his already week-long fever.
Richard shrugged, his mouth tense, and nodded, “Go ahead.”
“Are you comfortable with Herr Landers' presence while I proceed?”
“Herr Landers is dying to see this,” Landers grinned, rocking his stool dangerously far back and forth, but Lorenz' gaze lingered on his patient, waiting.
“Whatever,” Richard frowned, “Just get on with it.”
Lorenz had met them all before, the types of people that had had to die; the young children who deserved it least of all, the very old ones who were quite alright with leaving, if only in a gentler way. The beautiful women, who eventually died ugly. The wealthy, whose money could buy them neither health nor time. Hard-working people, thieves and beggars, the ones that fought and the ones who gave up immediately. They would all succumb eventually, and in the rarest cases was it fair or just.
As Lorenz went to pull the white curtain, granting them a little privacy for the upcoming examination by sectioning them off from the rest of the busy room, he already knew what type of patient Richard was going to be. The sceptical one, like a stray dog that would bark at the hand that tried to help him. He wouldn't be the first one to do so, nor did it matter to Lorenz as he would go through his routine. It was never the person who he treated, but the body, and as it were, all bodies functioned in one and the same way. He knew his way around those. People, however, Lorenz had never managed to figure out, and that's where he would always fail.
While moving about a little stiffly, with his bad posture and long arms, he was swift when it came to preparing himself for a physical examination. Pulling over the little standard tin cabinet that came with every patient's bed, Lorenz rid himself of his black gloves, rinsed his pale hands with disinfectant, put on a new white pair and reached inside another drawer to blindly hold out a mask while seemingly taking stock of what else he saw inside the cabinet.
“For your friend,” he said eventually as he was met with dumbfounded silence, giving the mask between his gloved fingertips an impatient shake. Richard took it and handed it over to Landers, who sighed in annoyance.
“What about me? Do you need me to wear one?”
“No,” Lorenz muttered, pulling out the stethoscope he had kept tugged away behind his black vest and righting it around his neck, then placed another mask next to the clenched fist closest to him on the blanket. “This physical examination requires that I also check your mouth and face, but if you feel the need to cough or sneeze – please do so away from me and into the mask.”
Richard unclenched his fist and picked it up, his teeth worrying at his bottom lip, “Right.”
“As you know,” Lorenz began once more, standing beside the bed with his hands behind his back, having prepared all that he needed to before the start of the exam, “none of this should be painful, but if anything I do does cause you pain regardless, please tell me so immediately. I will also have to touch you in places you might be uncomfortable with, but I'm afraid that can't be helped. I promise to be quick.”
It sounded mechanical, and it almost felt that way, too. Lorenz couldn't possibly recount the many times he had performed this exam, but he figured at this point it came down to hundreds of procedures. Just like with any other surgery required in his field, Lorenz knew the steps, knew all possible outcomes, and what decision to make at which turn of events. He had memorized it all, even the worst case scenarios. There wasn't much that surprised him still, least of all a pestilence case. They turned gruesome either way.
With that thought, though it was merely a fleeting one, Lorenz reached for the beak of his mask and pulled it back over his head in one smooth glide to set it aside.
“Behold! He's human!”
The front chair legs of Landers' stool met the floor with a thud as he leaned forward, his big grin apparent in his voice despite his partially covered face, and even Richard's baffled expression quickly made way for something closer to a smile.
Heat shot to Lorenz' ears while he pushed the delicate round silver frames up the bridge of his nose, then tugged the linen mask he had worn beneath the beak properly into place. He didn't feel particularly comfortable with being perceived, and even less so when he wasn't wearing his full attire, when people seemed to take note of the man behind the occupation... Who was it that they saw?
Lorenz cleared his throat, “Ready?”
Despite his earlier assumption, Richard turned out to be mostly cooperative during the examination. Suspicious still, yes, and observant, as if he wasn't sure that the things done to him were really necessary. Or maybe they were entirely alien to him, which, considering that he had no current address, was more than likely. People with no home, who went from place to place, even working class people as a whole, rarely went to see a doctor. They had their own remedies to get by with, other mild illnesses the body was expected to handle on its own.
If it wasn't for his somewhat weakened appearance, the mild sweat on his forehead and lack of sleep, Richard made the impression of an otherwise healthy man, the evidence of a couple of vices notwithstanding. His teeth were of some concern, Lorenz spotted a few of them missing further back. His mouth, however, was sore-free. There was no bleeding, no inflammation, and his throat was neither swollen nor reddened.
“Do you smoke, Richard?” Lorenz asked as he leaned in closer to check on Richard's eyes. They were of a pale green, deep-set under a strong brow and somewhat glassy, but otherwise alert. There was some redness in the corners of his sclera, though that was likely the fever's fault.
“A bit,” Richard admitted, leaning somewhat out of Lorenz' inquiring touch probing around the general area of his eyes.
“A lot,” Landers corrected, which had Richard whip his head free from Lorenz' grip to grunt at him.
Lorenz continued to comb through Richard's dark hair instead, feeling for unusual bumps and looking for lice. Nothing.
“And what is it that you do for a living?”
It sounded like chit-chat, and Lorenz had found that many patients usually felt comfort in questions like these, happy to talk about their lives and not about the possible threat that interrupted it, but it wasn't just that. What a man, woman or child did on a daily basis usually told Lorenz a lot about what strains they put their bodies through. Was it farm work, doing a lot of heavy lifting, carrying more than they should and through all kinds of weather? Or did they sit a lot, bent over their work? What substances did they come in contact with? What type of air? Did they have enough time to drink, eat and sleep? Did they work at night or during the day? Inside or outside?
“Music,” came Richard's simple answer, his eyes darting to the stethoscope now in Lorenz' hand, as if he didn't trust it.
“Suppose the good Doktor here has little time to spare inside a pub, huh?” Landers quipped, having turned right back to the dangerous seesawing in his chair, hands folded behind his head. “That's where you'd usually find us, singing songs and telling stories. We play for anyone that'd have us! Right, Richard?”
Richard nodded and breathed in deeply as Lorenz told him so, holding the drum of his stethoscope to the back of Richard's left-hand ribcage. The smoking definitely proved to be of some concern, Lorenz thought, and switched to the other side of his lung, lifting Richard's threadbare hospital gown out of the way. Still, the volume of his breaths was impressive.
“Entertaining the guests for a weekend usually gets us by, buys us a few lunches, a place to stay,” Landers mused on, yet it didn't go entirely unnoticed that despite his light-hearted talk, he was watching Lorenz work very carefully.
“And where do you stay when that's not the case?” Lorenz asked, switching from Richard's back to his front, pushing the drum of his stethoscope down the wide collar of Richard's gown and over his heart. Listening.
“We travel a lot!”
Richard's heart was galloping, strong and loud in Lorenz' ears. Fighting hard alongside his fever to battle the intruder in his bloodstream. There was no doubt that a virus or bacteria had entered his system.
Landers continued, “We have a horse and a caravan, and if it isn't exactly winter we set up a decent camp.”
Slipping his hand out of Richard's gown and hooking the stethoscope around his neck, the drum tucked back inside his black vest, Lorenz stepped back a bit and paused. The young men stared at him expectantly, and while Landers stopped his seesawing, Richard's gaze had morphed from suspicion to worry.
Vagabonds. Travelling from place to place, from cities to villages, big and small. Obviously they had done the smart thing and gone north, trying to stay ahead of the plague's path, but here they were and the signs Richard was emitting weren't conclusive, but they were at the very least alarming.
“What's next, Doktor?”
Ripped from the possibilities rattling through Lorenz' mind, he could see Richard's weakened expression, the ruddy cheeks and tired, yet rebellious eyes, his quickened breath quietly heaving beneath his gown. He appeared stronger on the outside than what was going on behind his flesh and bones. A weaker man would have had a much harder time at this point.
“I need you to undress for me, Richard,” Lorenz concluded.
While Landers burst into gleeful cackles beside the bed, Richard looked visibly less amused. For just a moment, his hands clutched at his blanket again, and Lorenz almost expected him to find an excuse not to follow his instructions, as many patients often tried, but then he did reach for the back of his gown's collar after all and pulled it over his head and arms.
“Your underwear, too, please,” Lorenz went on, while Richard hissed at his friend (“Shut up!”), mock-slapping the linen shirt he had worn at him and missing, before he sat up properly to push his blanket back with his legs, shifting out of his long pair of white cotton drawers.
“Now, I need you to stand up, but be careful, you might feel faint‒”
“And pass out naked on the floor? Not gonna happen,” Richard bit back, though it sounded more like a retort against himself, telling his body to not give out on him and embarrass him any further. Or give Landers a reason to double over completely.
“There,” Richard stood, and he did so with pride and dignity. Though his hands did cover his private parts from view, his spine was rod-straight, his shoulders broad and chest wide and powerful. He wasn't exactly tall, hardly of average height, but his stance as well as his clenched jaw clearly made up for it. “Now what, Doktor?”
How enviable, Lorenz thought miserably behind bespectacled eyes that gave nothing away, taking in the healthy tan, soft muscles and youthful arrogance dripping off of Richard's chin. There seemed nothing amiss with his physique, on the contrary, he looked like the type of man a Greek or Roman artist would have modelled their marble statues after. Much like the Barberini Faun he had seen many years ago, back during his studies in Munich, all too blasé and aware of his own male beauty; taken for granted.
“First, I'll look for rashes, marks or any form of abnormalities‒”
“‒like a fracture that didn't heal properly. Scars or bumps. A missing limb.”
Surprised, Richard looked down to seemingly check on himself before looking back up with a deep frown, “I'm not missing any limbs! Why is that even relevant?”
“Something is using your body as a host, Richard,” Lorenz explained, his gaze falling to the golden cross sitting on Richard's chest; a necklace so fine and obviously well-kept, that it made Lorenz wonder how a travelling musician like him had come into the possession of such jewellery. “And I need to know how it got there, so any divergence from the norm could be relevant. Do you understand?”
Meeting Richard's eyes again, if only for a moment, he could see the uncertainty creep back into the fold between Richard's dark brows, how the cogs turned and clicked into place. He understood, and nodded glumly.
Lorenz was quick and efficient as he had said he would be. Despite a still lingering mild apprehension towards the overall exam, Richard proved to be pliant near the end of it, moving any which way Lorenz instructed him to. Lifting his arms, rotating his shoulders or letting Lorenz pick up his ankles one after the other to inspect his bare soles.
Lorenz squeezed and smoothed over muscles and sinews, bent all the joints that allowed bending, and closely inspected every inch of skin visible to him. When asked, Richard confirmed that he was still plagued by headaches, had trouble sleeping and felt his muscles burn tiredly, even if he laid still. Landers‒‒ or Paul, Lorenz caught himself thinking more often now, had fallen uncharacteristically silent watching the procedure.
Having retrieved his little notebook from his pocket, Lorenz noted down his findings: restricted mobility in Richard's left shoulder, a few minor cuts on his hands and forearms, hyperlordosis, a tiny reddened mark at the back of his left knee, and – most notably – several lines of very faint, very thin scars just below and atop Richard's shoulder blades. They were old, however, and a lighter colour than the rest of his tanned back. The rest of him was surprisingly mark-free. There were no moles, no birthmarks, no acne visible.
“Are we done?” Richard asked, but not in that snippy, impatient tone they had started out with. He sounded tired and had started shivering a while ago, despite his skin emitting heat like an oven, or rather because of it.
Looking over his notes, Lorenz' eyes stopped at the little red mark that seemed so entirely out of place, and lowered his book to inspect the spot anew.
“This mark here... Do you remember what happened there?”
Richard tried to look over his shoulder, “What? Which mark?”
“I haven't seen that before, that's new,” Paul provided out of the blue, having leaned across the bed, his weight stemmed onto his elbows, to see what exactly Lorenz was talking about. Looking up, Lorenz saw the young man genuinely intrigued, confused even, as if he was surprised that something so small had slipped his notice.
“I don't feel anything. Does it look weird?”
“Just red,” Paul confirmed, while Lorenz ran his still gloved thumb over it to see whether it would change in colour, but it didn't. There was a tiny white dot right in the middle of it, and an uneven, seemingly inflamed red ring around it. A tick bite, maybe.
Concerned, Lorenz rose back to his full height and underlined the tiny reddened mark in his notes before he tore the page off and stuck it to the clipboard attached to the hospital bed. There was no use in drawing the young men's attention to it any further.
“Almost done now, Richard,” Lorenz muttered, sorting his thoughts and the things he had learnt, and slipped his notebook and pencil back into his pocket. He gestured towards the bed, “Sit, please.”
Still baring all, Richard sat down on the mattress, hugging his middle as his shivers became stronger. He seemed to try to suppress them, but failed to do so, oblivious to the quiet worry that watched over him from behind. Paul sat back into his chair.
“I'm going to palpate your lymph nodes,” Lorenz explained, standing before Richard and gesturing at himself and the addressed areas, “They're located around your head and neck, your arms and armpits, as well as your groin area.”
Richard shuddered, his lips pressed into a tight line before he spoke, “Let me guess, that's the uncomfortable part you were talking about?”
“I'm afraid so, Richard.”
“Okay,” Richard swallowed and visibly brazed himself, straightening his posture despite his fever holding him in a tight grip, muscles quivering, “then get it over with now, Doktor.”
The swollen lymph nodes on a pestilence patient were usually hard to miss. Healthy ones were very small, almond-shaped and not visible to the eye, as they sat well-nestled under the skin. As Lorenz felt along the underside of Richard's jaw and behind his ears, he could tell that his lymph nodes were activated and a little bigger than if he were completely healthy, but that alone was nothing much to worry about.
The moment they were blatantly visible, deeply reddened, if not even turning black, that's when the plague was undoubtedly rampaging through a patient's bloodstream. Without antibiotics, and lots of them over the course of several days, if not weeks, the patient was bound to die a painful, gruesome death.
“Lift your arms for me,” Lorenz instructed, and as Richard did so, he reached for his armpits and felt along another string of little pea-sized knots towards his shoulder. “Now lower them again, please. Try to stay as loose as possible.”
“Ow,” Richard cursed under his breath while Lorenz palpated the tissue deep within with little circular motions, gripping past muscles to find the lymph nodes right under the fold. Again, the size of them wasn't alarming.
“You're not finding anything, are you?”
As Lorenz instructed Richard to lie down flat on his back, he looked over to find Paul with his mask pulled down and that same expression he had seen on so many worrying about their loved ones before. Without his up-to-no-good smirk and the mischievous glint in his eyes, he looked older. Sadder. Staring up at Lorenz to get the answer he wanted to hear.
“I mean‒ We've been further south, and I'm here every day,” a hopeful smile tugged at his dimples, “I've seen what it looks like. I... This is not that. Right?”
“Paulchen,” Richard reached for his forearm blindly, squeezed it, and only when Paul tore his eyes away from Lorenz to look at his friend did his face light up again. His hand slipped into Richard's in a manner that seemed awfully natural, fingers threading intimately. “Let the Doktor work, okay?”
A part of him wanted to tell the pair that everything would be alright. The child he used to be, the boy who had been constantly sick, had seen only hospital rooms and wept in so many nurses' arms. Who had wanted to be comforted and break free from the sterile, cold environment he had been confined to. He knew what it was like, to want to hear the good news, to want to be told that that he could go home now. As Paul had looked at him, face void of the optimism he was trying so hard to uphold, letting his worry shine through the cracks, the vulnerability and fear, what he was truly feeling, Lorenz wished he could have had something reassuring to say. As a doctor he knew he couldn't, not in these times, having seen what he had. The child in him wanted to be comforting, but the man he was felt himself thoroughly lacking in finding the right words. The only way he knew how to be was a doctor, and as Richard gave him the consenting nod to continue, that's what he did.
Sometimes Lorenz wondered what it was exactly that made him saddle his caravan time and time again to move on to the next city, to be the bearer of the bad news, to ignite that same false kind of hope that he did everywhere he went. With a remedy in his pocket that was only useful to a select lucky few, because it took too damn long and the plague was too fast, too hungry. Maybe it's German efficiency, his father would have said. It's your kind heart, the words of his mother. Stubbornness, was Lorenz' best guess.
Again, he was overseeing a lab in its infancy. Again, he was watching young men in bright white coats scramble about to learn the process of harvesting new medicine. It would take weeks before they had enough to save a single man. Months to save what was left of the city's population. By then Lorenz would be back on the road and do it all over again one city further up north.
“It's me,” the assistant Riedel told him a few days later, just when they were the last ones to lock away the samples with pestilence blood, the ones needed for testing their premature antibiotics on to finesse them into something useful. “I'm smuggling Landers inside at night. So he can be with‒‒ So he can stay.”
Of course. He had seen the young vagabond sneak around in the wee morning hours.
“I see,” Lorenz said after a long pause, then took the last containers from Riedel's hands, arranged them on their designated shelves, and locked the cabinet. He supposed he had to report a breach in policy; who knew how many more people were put at risk due to Doktor Riedel's misplaced kindness?
“You have a good heart,” Lorenz muttered as he turned away from the cabinet. The young assistant looked surprised, a little fearful of what to expect from his new mentor, but more so relieved to have shared the burden.
“Is that a good thing, Doktor Lorenz?”
Looking down at the cabinet's key in his hand, its weight seemed to grow heavier in his gloved palm. When he slipped it into his vest's pocket, he sighed quietly to himself and figured they should call it a night.
“Don't get caught.”
The heat was unbearable.
Sweltering, pounding, burning under his skin, dripping out of every pore. He was slick with sweat and damn near delirious. Thirsty. So, so thirsty. His tongue a dry, heavy weight in his mouth. His clothes soaking wet. His sheets and pillow, too.
What day was it?
How long had he been here, and when exactly had he lost track of time?
Richard could feel his every bone ache, from head to toe and in each fingertip. How was he supposed to play his guitar, if he could hardly lift his head? Move his wrists? He tried and shifted in his bed, dug his heel into the mattress to push his weight up the length of it, only to have his breath punched out of his lungs by a searing pain travelling up his leg and biting into his groin like a hot red knife. Richard froze.
Flicking his eyes across the cracked grey ceiling, he could feel the panic rise up in his throat like bile. Why did his lap feel so heavy? His legs so swollen? With a pounding heart, Richard tried to decipher nightmare from reality. He had had so many these past couple of days, always waking up in a fright, with his fists clenched so hard his nails had left crescent cuts inside his palms. How was he supposed to know what was real? Every fever induced dream had made him question his sanity, though they had been all much of the same. There was always fire; fire and soot and burning flesh, guilt and fear, and the unbearable thought of having left someone behind.
He was right there. Sat on his little chair, with his legs crossed at the ankles and his blonde hair in wild disarray. He was reading, twisting his little ponytail between his fingers and focusing on the words below.
Hold me, Richard wanted to say; hold me like you used to when we woke in our caravan, when we weren't here and I wasn't like this. Like the other morning, when you had to leave before they could see you.
Please, Richard's mind wailed, though he couldn't say it, couldn't tell Paul about the sickness he knew was taking him hostage. He could feel it, how it gained in strength and left him weaker by the hour. It was in his heart, marching, marching, but Richard couldn't let him know. Couldn't let him see. It would break him, wouldn't it?
“If you leave, I'm coming with you.”
For most of his life Richard had wondered why he had been given this burden. Why was he meant to love in a way that was seen as sinful? Try as he might, he couldn't fight what was in his nature, no matter how wrong. Did that make him a bad person? Did that mean he failed? Then how come the past two years had felt as blissful as they had?
“I'm corrupting you, Paulchen.”
“No, you're not. You love me, you idiot.”
Richard didn't want it to end.
He had thought they would go see the world together.
“Hey, you're awake,” Paul smiled, as bright as ever, keeping his hopes up for the both of them, and when Richard tried to smile back he didn't know whether he had succeeded. The fever made his vision swim.
He could see him. He could still see him.
“Boy, you're drenched,” Richard heard him say, felt his fingers comb through his soaked hair with concern, if only to confirm what he had just said. It felt nice. Or didn't it? Richard wasn't sure as he tried to blink the film away, spotting a familiar dark figure making its rounds through the room.
“How about we pull that blanket back a bit, you must be burning up‒”
“No!” Richard croaked, clutching at his ruined blanket with all the strength left in him, “I just‒ I just need something to drink,” he reasoned, “please, could you‒ could you get me some water?”
“Right. Water. Coming right up!”
The little chair creaked, and left in Paul's spot sat his book. The same one he had carried around for weeks now, the pages bent and spine broken, the cover showing a faded picture of a mountain. Watzmann, Richard knew it said on the front, Expedition To The Top.
“You wouldn't believe it! Listen to this‒,” Paul would often say and cite a particularly exciting passage while Richard led their horse, watching his young face light up with wonder and a passion for all the adventures he thought waited for him out there in the world.
I promised I'd show you the mountains one day.
I still have to show you the mountains.
Tears burnt behind his eyes, and he couldn't tell whether he was yet holding them back or whether they were running freely as relief and fear prickled right under his breastbone. Relief, because with him he knew he could let go of some of that resolve. Fear, because he knew what was coming.
“Doktor Lorenz. Hey.”
“You don't look well,” the tall plague doctor stated flatly, towering over Richard with his cool eyes and the round glasses, before he swiftly went to pull the curtains shut around them.
A frightening man, Richard had thought at first, with the bird's mask and lifeless stare. He hadn't known what to make of him and that numbing smell of mint that surrounded him. Now, it almost came as a comfort. Doktor Lorenz had visited him twice a day since and even once at night, when he had woken from a fever dream, screaming, screaming that he was burning, and frightening every last patient on his side of the corridor.
What he lacked in warmth, Doktor Lorenz had made up in efficiency and expertise. He was precise, but not unkind. Distanced, but offering explanations where he could. A really well-dressed man, Richard had envied as he often got to watch him work, never impatient, never rough, and most of all free of judgement. Never straying.
“My legs,” Richard began, his voice falling apart at the seams, “They're hurting. I-I'm hurting everywhere, Doktor.”
“Let me see,” he replied, as gentle as Richard had ever heard him, and helped unclench Richard's trembling fingers from his clammy blankets.
As Doktor Lorenz pulled the blanket down and folded it neatly at the foot, Richard's body started to quake with the sobs he couldn't hold in any longer. He grunted in shame, nausea concentrating right in his throat when he saw that he must have soiled himself a while ago. And when Doktor Lorenz inched up his gown and tugged at his cotton drawers, revealing his swollen, lumpy groin, covered in ugly fat boils, his night fears were now reality.
“God has come to punish me,” Richard whispered as his sanity slipped away from him, and he felt his eyes melt in their sockets.
He couldn't see. He couldn't see.
“Wouldn't you say, Doktor?”
Two days later, Richard succumbed to the plague.