Mina Harker was humming softly.
It was the first sound Rodney Skinner heard as he woke from a light, uncomfortable doze, slumped in a chair by the cabin door. Still feigning sleep, he listened, and tried to place the tune; it was melancholy rather than cheerful, but at the same time soothing and comforting. Perhaps, long ago, Madam Mina had hummed that very song to her son Quincey.
Skinner had never been able to think of Mina as motherly—yet she could not have looked more like one as she leaned over the bed of Tom Sawyer, gently wiping his feverish face with a cool, damp cloth.
The sickness had crept over him slowly, several days after a mission that took them to the depths of Hell’s Kitchen, searching for a criminal who had information they needed. They were in London again before the symptoms even manifested, and for a while after that, Sawyer had shrugged off the nausea and headaches as a mere touch of the flu. It took a nosebleed to bring him to Doctor Jekyll—and to the diagnosis, at last, of typhoid fever. It was presumed that in some moment of youthful incautiousness, he had ingested tainted water or food while in the slums of New York.
The days that followed were a terrible vigil, as the raging fever took hold of a once vital young man.
He was being kept on board the Nautilus, where his infection was more easily quarantined, and where the ship’s precise temperature controls could help to cool him. Mina was insistent upon performing the nursing duties alone; the disease was not airborne, but she seemed to feel that it was a proper precaution to limit contact. As for herself… well, it appeared the condition of being slightly undead brought with it some very useful immunities.
So they took care of him, and finally, after more than a week, the fever began to lessen—but Sawyer was far from out of danger, as he sank into a morass of tremors and delirium that was painful to watch.
Yet Skinner did watch. Although Mina forbade him to help tend the patient, he rarely left his self-appointed post in that hard wooden chair by the door. Sawyer had appreciated the companionship while he was lucid, and Skinner was certain his friend felt his presence more keenly now than ever.
A soft tap at the door preceded the entrance of Doctor Henry Jekyll, who poked his head into the room with an anxious frown on his face. Even he, a medical man, could do nothing more for Sawyer now. It was simply a matter of waiting—and for some, of praying.
"Has there been any change?" he asked quietly.
As she turned to immerse the cloth in a basin of cold water by the bedside, Mina solemnly shook her head. "Not since this morning."
"Well… these things take time." Jekyll sounded as if he was saying it to himself as much as to anyone else. A steady clicking sound suggested he was fidgeting with his pocketwatch. It was a habit he’d eased up on, as he and Hyde had seemingly come to terms, but he fell back on the nervous gesture when he was greatly moved with concern for others. It was irritating… but rather touching, in a way. That needful soul had come to care for his comrades in a way that was achingly apparent.
At that moment, Skinner’s stiffness chose to make its presence known with a sharp twinge in his back. He winced and gave up the pretense of sleep, rising to stretch his cramped muscles. As he rolled his shoulders to work out the kinks, Mina acknowledged him with a glance, and he stepped to the bedside.
"Hang in there, Tom," he said quietly, looking down with an empty feeling at the figure in the bed. Sawyer lay trembling in his sleep, his eyelashes fluttering as his eyes darted back and forth behind half-closed lids. His cheeks were flushed, and his gold locks were matted with sweat; the fever was slowly declining, but he was still burning up.
Skinner felt a pang in his heart. He knew very well what it was like to burn. He had once felt fire in Sawyer’s place, and if he could have done so this time as well, he gladly would have.
He hadn’t the faintest idea why… and it never occurred to him to ask.
Although Tom Sawyer lay insensate, what he experienced had ceased to be sleep. On some level, his mind within his ravaged body was now constantly active, although he wasn’t sure whether it had been this way for moments or days. At the time, he did not question this strange, useless wakefulness—but after lying for what felt like so long in an unending sort of twilight, it had become incredibly boring.
It was at least a blessing that he no longer felt the heat and pain and misery of his sickness. Instead, he felt as if he had been walking for a very long time; he was weary to the core of his being, but his mind refused to give up its stubborn alertness.
He wanted real sleep more than anything in the world.
Sometimes, he did feel that sleep was at the very edge of his consciousness, a darkness that promised to be cool and quiet and infinitely restful. He tried often to embrace it, but something within him resisted, and he was left to wear away slowly until he was sure he would go mad.
Perhaps he would have already, if he had believed he was alone—but he knew someone was always near, and usually more than one person. It wasn’t that he saw or heard them, although there were many moments when he still had some disjointed awareness outside of himself. Rather, he felt them, and this too he did not question. His keenest impression was of Skinner, though he remembered from when he was truly awake that Mina had stayed nearest him; perhaps it was a trait of her not-quite-mortal nature that she did not resonate as strongly with his psyche. Sometimes Jekyll was there, too, and once Tom thought he even felt the cool steel of Nemo’s presence.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if he could have talked to them, as he had earlier in his illness, but the nerves and muscles necessary for that effort seemed far, far away. The fever held him captive within his own body, and he was too exhausted to care any longer.
He felt the enticing shade of sleep hovering over him once more. He reached for it, and this time his mind finally quieted, as Tom felt a strange sense of resignation—and almost a relief. Now he would rest.
"But taking the easy way out isn’t your style, boy."
Tom mentally gave a start so pronounced, it translated itself physically as well. That voice…
No. It was impossible. He was sick, and some part of him acknowledged that he was delirious. He had seen and heard a lot of strange things earlier on. If he was passing from that dull, relentless inner clarity and back into hallucination, could it mean he was getting better?
"No, Tom. I’m not a delusion, and you’re not getting better. To the contrary… you’re dying."
Really, this was getting to be too much.
With some effort, Tom opened his eyes and looked around—and he was somehow aware that he wasn’t really, physically doing so. It did occur to him to question this, but he decided it was better to let well enough alone. However it happened, he could look around his sick-room now. Seated beside the bed at his left was Mina, possibly in prayer, hands folded and head bowed. In a chair by the door sat Skinner, absent his mask of greasepaint, apparently drowsing in a position that was sure to leave his neck sore.
And standing by the bed at Tom’s right hand, looking down on him with a gentleness he had never quite shown in life, was the tall and rugged figure of the late Allan Quatermain.
Tom closed his eyes, letting out a long, slow breath. "Okay… so maybe I am dying."
He suspected he wasn’t really speaking out loud, and this was confirmed by the fact that neither Mina nor Skinner stirred. The vision of Quatermain, however, did react, smiling wryly as he bent down to place his hand on Tom’s fevered brow. The touch was that of perfectly tangible flesh and blood.
"You wouldn’t be seeing me if you weren’t dying—but there’s still time."
"Time?" Tom frowned, squinting at Quatermain through a new wave of exhaustion. "To do what?"
"To live, my boy." Quatermain’s hand moved, smoothing Tom’s sweat-dampened hair. "You’re at the worst of it now. You’ve got to fight. Hold off the darkness for just a little longer."
The darkness. The sleep that tempted him. As Tom realized what it truly was, what it meant, he should have been frightened—but he wasn’t. He was simply interested, in a rather distant way. He had always expected death to be something violent and vicious, not… inviting.
"I’m so tired," he sighed plaintively.
Quatermain sat down on the edge of the bed. "I know you are, Tom. But there’s strength enough in you to survive this. You still have that choice…" He lowered his eyes suddenly, as they darkened with an inner pain that stole Tom’s breath away. "And if I were in your place, I’d fight for it, to my last breath."
A shudder passed through Tom. "You were in my place. Why didn’t you fight?"
"I did. You know that." Quatermain’s right hand continued to ruffle Tom’s hair, and his left came to rest on the young man’s outstretched wrist, gently closing over the precious pulse that beat there. "I simply hadn’t enough life left in me, Tom. It was my time."
"So who says this isn’t my time?"
"I say." The softness in Quatermain’s tone suddenly gave way to commanding sharpness. "I bought your life with my own, boy, and I’ll not see you give it up to a thing as meaningless as a disease."
He had to know those were the very words that would drive deepest into Tom’s soul.
The American shut his eyes to hold back the tears that welled up in them. How many times had he thought to himself that it was not he, but Allan who should have lived? Yet now that seemed a cruel ingratitude to a wonderful gift; a gift that could not be returned, but could be repaid, by its use in goodness and wisdom. It was the way Quatermain had lived his own life: fully, honorably, and without reservation—and he had a right to expect no less of the man for whom he had forfeited it.
The darkness pressed in again, and now Tom resisted it with every fiber of his being.
"Good lad," Quatermain smiled. Tom felt the gentle pressure on his wrist tighten, and instinctively slipped his hand into the older man’s, gripping it as firmly as he clung to life.
He was unsure how long he lay, struggling against the fatal rest he had once craved. Coherent thought was overwhelmed by exhaustion, but he fixed his mind on the rough hand that held his, and the knowledge that Allan would not let him go.
"Steel is forged in fire," Quatermain told him softly, brushing the damp locks from Tom’s forehead. "You’ll come out of this crucible the stronger for your suffering."
Fire there was, as Tom slowly began to feel once more the heat of his fever, and the awful pains in his body. At the same time, Quatermain’s grip on his hand relaxed, but this strangely did not upset him. Instead, it brought a realization that filled him with mingled sadness and hope: as he grew closer now to life than to death, his time with Quatermain in this place between the two grew short.
He found the strength and the clarity to voice one final question.
"Did you get to be with your son again?"
Quatermain smiled, and it was the first time—living or dead—that Tom had seen true, heartfelt joy in the old hunter’s eyes.
"I look forward to introducing you to him someday," he said, and then a soft mock-sternness crept into his tone. "But I expect you to keep me waiting a very long time for that privilege."
"No promises," Tom whispered with a weak grin, "but I’ll try."
The shadow that hung over him had changed. It was no longer dark; it felt softer and sweeter, not entirely free from the discomfort of his sickness, but fresh and healing like sunlight. It was true sleep that beckoned, and he could not have resisted it had he tried.
He closed his eyes, but before he felt Quatermain’s hand slip from his, he whispered one final thought.
"Thank you, Allan."
Sometime later, the waking world fell upon Tom like a ton of bricks.
He felt awful, sick and aching, and sticky from the sweat of the fever that had finally broken—yet there was a swift rush of joy as he opened his eyes. He was alive.
As before, Mina and Skinner were his keepers. Had Mina not been wearing a different dress, he might have thought no time at all had passed; but he knew better. A great deal of time had passed, and they had spent it here, in this numbing vigil, for care of him. It made him even more glad to be alive, because he would be able to say thank you.
Mina, looking up from the book in her hands, was the first to notice his open eyes. "Tom!"
The exclamation roused Skinner, who must have been daydreaming, if not indeed sleeping. He shot up from his chair and sprang to the bedside, with an eagerness belied by the affected nonchalance of his greeting: "Well, it’s about time you woke up."
Tom smiled weakly. "Hello, Skinner," he rasped, and discovered that his throat was parched.
"Easy," Mina urged, and picking up a cup of water from the bedside table, leaned forward to help him drink. With her other hand, and some effort, she managed to shift his pillows so that he was sitting up just a little. He drank as deeply as he dared, then laid his head back and gazed at Mina with undisguised gratitude in his eyes.
"Thank you," he said, and glancing at Skinner, added, "both of you."
"You gave us a fright for a while there," Skinner replied, with a lightness in his tone that did not quite mask the wrenching honesty beneath the words. "How do you feel now?"
"Terrible," Tom replied, with good-humored woe.
"Your fever broke last night," Mina supplied. "Doctor Jekyll thinks you should recover fully. I’m sure he’ll want to see you. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go fetch him." With a graceful bow of her head—and not without a few relieved backward glances—she went out of the room.
Skinner dropped into the seat beside the bed which Mina had just vacated, folding his arms. This time he was wearing his greasepaint, and for a moment, he too permitted an expression of relief to fill his white face. "Good to have you back among the living, Sawyer."
"It’s good to be back among the living." A thought occurred to Tom. "Did I say anything while I was lying here?"
"A few mumbles mostly." The invisible man paused. "There was one thing, just as you were coming out of the worst of it."
"Well… you said, ‘Thank you, Allan.’" Skinner shrugged. "You were dreaming, I suppose."
Tom smiled thoughtfully. "Maybe so," he replied.
Yet in his heart, he didn’t believe that for a moment.
Additional Notes:After struggling for ideas, I was within a few days of excusing myself from the ficathon when I chanced to see a PBS documentary about "Typhoid Mary". Thus, the existence of this fic is entirely due to that program. I’m not a medically-minded person, and I made use of a very old encyclopedia for my information, so I apologize if I muffed the technical side of things at all.
© 2004Jordanna Morgan