Authors: Ben Brown
Copyright 2013 Ben Brown
Published by Ben Brown
Copyright 2013 by Ben Brown
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the Australia by Ben Brown.
You are granted a non-exclusive license to this work. You may make copies or reformat it for YOUR OWN USE ONLY. You may not resell, trade, nor give this work away.
Created in Australia
First Publication: July 2013
Cover design & composition: Ben Brown.
Editor: Sara Dean.
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters are a product of the imagination of the author and any resemblance to any real person, either living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Table of content.
Location: Saint Mary’s Hospital for the Poor in Whitechapel, London
Date: December 21st 1842
Time: 9:30 p.m.
Doctor Charles Mortimer moved slowly along the aisles of beds, and in the dim light of the gas lamps, his patients looked like cadavers. Row upon row of beds filled the large room, and each of those beds held a patient stricken with the same malady.
In his thirty years of medicine, Mortimer had never seen anything like it. His experience ranged across every infection known to man. Plague, Typhus, Cholera, and none of them spread through the community with the virulence of this dreadful disease. In spite of the speed at which the ailment took hold, its progression after the initial infection was extremely slow.
Once a poor soul became infected, they seemed doomed to lie motionless in a coma, and little else. The first infections had been discovered in late October, and even though close to three million people had contracted the disease, none had yet died. Instead they lingered as their bodies decayed around them.
His eyes moved across the foul smelling ward under his care. It was a smell he found hard to abide. They stank like the dead, only worse. He could smell their decay, but there was a perfume beneath the stench of putrefying flesh. That perfume scared him more than anything, because he didn’t know what it was. Below the reek was a sickly sweet odour which both repelled and excited the senses. Mortimer coughed and placed his handkerchief over his mouth. When he pulled it away, it was covered in blood. Soon he would be rotting beside them, and he shuddered at the thought.
He moved to the bed closest to him, it contained a young woman in her early twenties. He bent over her and began his examination.
He lifted her eyelids first, and as with all the others, her eyes had turned a dreadful yellow. Not the yellow of someone with Jaundice, in those cases only the whites of the eye discolour. No, with this disease the whole eye changes. It becomes all but impossible to distinguish pupil from retina, or retina from the sclera.
He moved to her wrist and checked her pulse. As he counted off the slow rhythm of her labouring heart, his eyes traced the pattern of blisters and boils which covered her skin. With every day that passed, the foul seeping pustules drew closer together. Soon every inch of her body would be covered in them.
Mortimer straightened and placed his hands at the pit of his aching back. He felt tired, old, and afraid. He knew he only had a matter of hours until the disease claimed him for itself. All too soon he would be laid among his pungent patients, rotting and decomposing along with them. He wiped a tear from his eye and headed for his desk. He needed to place a last entry in his journal. He needed to leave a record for his beloved wife and children — that is, if the disease hadn’t already taken them. When had he seen them last? Was it a week ago? No, it must have been at least two.
He said a silent prayer for them, and eased himself into his chair. With a trembling hand he reached for his spectacles, and after several moments of fumbling, he managed to perch the flimsy wire frames atop his nose. With one final look out at those under his care, he dipped his pen in the ink well and began to write.
I fear this will be my final entry, for I can feel the dreadful disease known as, ‘The Lingering’, pervading every cell in my body. Its tendrils seem set about my innards like an all-consuming beast hell bent on consuming its prey.
For close to two months I have watched this vengeful pestilence strip both dignity and humanity from all those its touch falls upon. As I witness the progression of this nightmarish malady, I cannot help but think God has cast this plague upon us. I come to this conclusion because of the disease’s nature. It seems created explicitly for the purpose of punishment. Never before have I seen an infection that consumes its host like a parasite. It seems to allow its victims to live just so it can eat them alive.
Those who read this may think I am placing human aspects on what is simply an infirmity, but believe me, I have witnessed this insidious disease first hand, and it has an agenda. Fear not, the Lingering has not impaired my faculties, I am simply reporting what I have seen with my own eyes. If this pestilence is not the act of a vengeful God, then we are all truly damned. For if this is not his hand then he has abandoned us.
By my reckoning, and by the reports I have received from my peers, this disease will have infected every soul on this planet within a year. Never before has man faced such a plague, and maybe mankind will fail to live to see anything else.
I have heard tales of some waking from their stupor, but these are but rumours, and I have not witnessed any such events. Maybe humanity will form a resistance to this hideous affliction, but I believe such a resistance will come too late.
To my beloved wife, Mary, and my beautiful daughters, Grace and Amy: I hope by some miracle the Lingering finds you not. However, I feel these are the futile dreams of a failing mind. I know only this, when it is our time to enter Heaven, we will do so as a family greatly in love. I love you my darlings, and I miss…
Mortimer froze with his pen hovering over the inkwell. Had he just heard a groan? He tilted his head and listened intently, but all he could hear was the laboured breathing of hundreds of tortured souls. In the months spent dealing with The Lingering, not once had any made a sound, but he felt sure he had heard something. Several seconds passed, then ten more, but still he heard nothing but the rhythmical sounds of breathing.
He returned his attention to his journal, and dipped his pen in the ink. Again he froze, not because of any unexpected sound, but because of a sound he knew all too well. The breathing of those around him had changed, their respiration somehow synchronising.
Instead of hearing hundreds of individual breaths, he heard a unified struggle for air. Every inhalation and exhalation now fell in perfect time, and the resulting sound sent a shiver up his spine. With a trembling hand he placed his pen beside his journal, and got to his feet. As he edged towards the beds closest to his desk, he could feel his breathing synchronising with those under his charge. He fought against the bizarre phenomenon, but to no avail. Struggle as he might, he seemed to have no more control over his own lungs than he did over those who putrefied before him.
He came to a stop beside the bed of an elderly man and gazed down at him. The old man’s mouth hung open, as foaming saliva boiled from it. Mortimer bent to take a closer look, and the glasses which still perched on the bridge of his nose, tumbled to the floor. He bent to pick them up, but stopped when he heard another groan. There was no mistaking it this time. From somewhere in the middle of the ward, a groaning grew ever louder.
Ignoring his glasses, he dashed towards the sound. Maybe this dreadful disease was finally beginning to release its grip. Almost in a panic of fear and optimism, he ran from one bed to the next. Again a groan filled the air, this time extremely loud. His eyes fixed on a bed where one of The Lingering’s victims resided. But this wasn’t possible. The occupant of the bed was sitting bolt upright.
Mortimer weaved through the beds aiming straight for that which could not be true. “Nurse! Nurse!” he yelled as he traversed the maze of beds. “Nurse, come quickly!’
He looked back towards the door, then remembered – all the nurses had been sent home, only he now monitored the ward. With his gaze diverted from his course, his knee slammed into the side of a bed, and he began to hurtle towards the stone floor. He reached out with his hands to break his fall, and skidded to a stop in a heap.
He rolled onto his back and looked at his skinned hands. Tiny rolls of white flesh had been peeled back on his palms, and blood began to seep from the grazes. He winced and blew on his burning wounds. After a few seconds he placed his hands beneath his arm pits, and like a man hugging himself, squeezed tightly. His thoughts turned to what a fool he was. How had he forgotten the nurses were gone? Was The Lingering pervading his mind?
Again a groan ripped him from his thoughts, and he struggled to his feet. He could now see that the person groaning was in fact a boy of no more than ten or twelve. He moved towards him again, this time more carefully.
Mortimer stared into the boy’s face. The boy returned his gaze with yellow eyes that had developed tiny black pupils. The same foaming saliva he had seen gushing from the old man, issued from the boy’s mouth.
He clicked his fingers in front of his patient’s eyes and grimaced at the pain it caused to his hands. He waited a few seconds, then did it again. The boy seemed completely oblivious to him, and continued to stare aimlessly around. Mortimer tried again, and this time a tiny drop of blood flicked from his palm and landed on the boy’s lips. The child suddenly became agitated, and his tiny pupils grew larger.
Mortimer stepped back and took in the boy’s unexpected change. In a matter of seconds he had gone from a passive and docile figure, to a snarling, slavering beast.
The boy leaped from the bed and bounded towards him with teeth bared. Mortimer staggered backwards and into the bed behind him. Before he knew it, the child was on his chest and snapping at his face.
Terrified, he struggled furiously with the small, maniacal figure. In spite of the boy’s prolonged illness, he seemed to have the strength of a grown man. Finally, he managed to wrestle the slavering creature back to his bed, and pinned his chest with one knee.
All but exhausted, he reached for the restraints which hung loosely from the bed, and carefully strapped the boy’s arms to the metal frame. It took several minutes for him to fully restrain his patient, but finally he stood and mopped his sweating brow.
The boy stared up at him with hungry and now completely black eyes. Mortimer moved slowly around the bed, before kneeling just inches from the child’s crazed face. He could make out tiny blue veins latticing their way across the boy’s skin. He saw how they pulsed as the child struggled against his tethers. Was this the end in store for all those with The Lingering? He hoped for his wife and children’s sake that this child was an isolated example of what the disease could do.
Mortimer placed his bloody hands on his knees and began to stand, but suddenly he felt a strong hand on his neck. He turned and saw the salivating old man from the bed by his desk, standing over him. The old man’s mouth opened impossibly wide, and then he lunged with frightening speed. Mortimer went to scream, but the man’s mouth latched onto his face, and completely smothered his cries.
His shrieks rang out down the throat of the crazed man now tearing at his face. Mortimer rained blows down on his attacker, but to no avail. In a desperate attempt to escape, he placed both hands on the old man’s chest and pushed back with all his might. He could feel the flesh on his face tearing, but still he pushed.
His face tore free of his attacker’s jaws and he scrambled onto his hands and knees. But before he could escape, a terrible gurgling scream filled the air. Mortimer tried to get to his feet, but his eyes seemed drawn to the scream. He looked over his shoulder and saw the grotesque countenance of the old man devouring the flesh torn from his face. He stumbled again and let out a small terrified cry. The creature, (for the thing before him was no longer a man) returned its attention to him. In that second Mortimer knew his death was only moments away.
His strength failed him, and he slumped to the floor powerless. The creature moved closer to him and Mortimer began to pray.
“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still…”
The nightmarish thing lunged again. This time it forced open his mouth and locked onto his tongue. Mortimer’s eyes went wide as the beast pulled back and swallowed both his tongue and words whole.
The creature shook its head, spraying blood and drawl all over its unfortunate prey. It feasted on Mortimer’s flesh for several seconds, before it looked down at him again. As if sensing it had completely vanquished the man, its face distorted into a horrifying smile, and it let out a hunger filled bellow. Its bellow gradually subsided to a gurgle, and then it swooped once more.
Its teeth tore into Mortimer’s throat like a ravenous dog, but thankfully he felt no pain. Mercifully, his heart failed him before the thing could take his life. Never again would he see his beloveds. Never again would he treat the sick. In his final moments he had become little more than carrion.