Content warning: Drug use and implied abuse
Richard had been sick for weeks. What had started as a simple feeling of weakness and chill had progressed over the course of a week or two into what the doctors called pneumonia, and his caretaker, Sylvia Sapping, called ‘being on death’s door.’ He had awoken the night after hallucinating his dead family members with bad sunburns on his face, but feeling otherwise fine. A few days later, he began to feel weaker, and about a week after that he’d caught a stubborn fever.
Sylvia Sapping was a longtime friend who had come over to Richard’s house to take care of him while he was ill. She lived a ways away, and after a while it grew too impractical for her to make the journey every morning, so, instead, Richard was moved into an abandoned apartment across from hers.
He lay on a pallet against the back wall, swaddled in blankets and with a bucket of water and a loaded gun beside him. It was hard to breathe, Richard was so weak he could barely move, and he was always so, so cold.
Sometimes, people came to visit him. There were occasionally people who were still alive, like Leonard, who had paid for the doctor and the blankets, or Deirdre, who lived across the hall and came to refill his water and make sure that no one had bothered him. Those visitations made sense, but the appearances of the woman soaked in blood, Catherine, his mother, who sang to him, and the shadow man in red who stood at the door, never moving, were less explainable. Richard had felt that man’s touch one night, and Sylvia said he had afterwards become so hot he had nearly died.
Richard kept his journal near his pallet, and his sketchbook, and he wrote and drew until he was physically unable to hold the pencil. He kept careful track of his illness, and knew from his journal that a doctor had been to see him on the seventeenth of September, 1860, at two in the afternoon. The doctor had diagnosed him with pneumonia and had wanted to give him purgatives, blister his chest, and bleed him. Fortunately, not only did Leonard disagree, Sylvia Sapping also had a deathly fear of doctors, and had not allowed the man back.
Richard awoke on the twenty-fourth to find Sylvia taking laudanum on the ground next to him. She grinned at him when he stared at her.
“The doctors wanted you to take this,” Sylvia said. “Don’t worry, though, I’ll polish it off for you.”
“You’ll polish it off?” Richard’s voice came out like a croak.
“Unless you do want it.”
“No, you can have it.” Richard picked up his bucket of water and took a long drink. “I’m starved.”
“Get used to it, ghoul boy,” Sylvia said. “Oh, and by the way…”
“What’s wrong with them? Have they swollen up?” That had happened before, and Richard had soaked them in hot water to get the swelling down. “I know what to do.”
“Well, not exactly…”
“What happened to them, Sylvia?”
She cleared her throat and faced him. “Are you sensitive about anyone finding out the nature of your disability?”
Oh no. Richard had worn his shoes less when he was younger, and he had had insults hurled at him by certain people, including his grandfather. Once, his grandfather had locked him in a church for hours and hours after he’d taken off his shoes in front of him. “Erm… listen, Sylvia…”
“Let me be straight with you, then. You’ve been delirious for several days, and you made me take off your shoes. You said they were too hot. I, em, well, the best way to say this is that I know that your feet are hooves, Richard.”
And there it was. The reason he wore special shoes, the reason he couldn’t walk properly without a cane and shoes or crutches. “They aren’t hooves,” Richard said quietly. “It’s a natural mutation of bony growths that grew at the ends of the bones that should have formed my feet in the womb.” His grandfather had called him satanic, and said that his mother must have consorted with the devil to birth him. After that, Richard, his father, and his mother had severed contact with the old man until his grandmother’s death a few years later.
“It’s okay,” Sylvia said. “Whatever they are. It’s a common disability where I’m from. There’s lots of people with it, and we all know ways to help the pain.”
“Will you show me sometime, when I get better?”
“Sure thing.” Sylvia took another swallow of the laudanum. “You’re feeling better?”
“Not by much.”
Sylvia put her bottle down and left the room. She returned a few minutes later with Dr Faust, who carried a medical bag.
Dr Faust sat down next to Richard and held up a thermometer. Richard opened his mouth and waited while the thermometer read his temperature.
“His fever’s gotten better,” Dr Faust said. “Not much better, but better. How do you feel?”
“It’s easier to breathe. I feel stronger.”
“That’s good.” Johann put his thermometer away. “I would recommend continued rest and as much fluid as you can keep down. That’s for the fever. Otherwise… I don’t know, Richard. To give you my professional opinion, I don’t think you have pneumonia. To be totally honest with you, I don’t know what you have. Are you sure there was nothing out of the ordinary just before you contracted this illness?”
“I think I saw ghosts,” Richard said.
Johann rolled his eyes. “Anything real?”
“I saw ghosts.”
“Right, well, if you don’t want to tell me, don’t. Sylvia, I have to thank you for keeping the doctors away from him. You may have saved his life.”
Sylvia lifted her bottle of laudanum. “Hooray for fear!”
Johann picked up his bag and went back to his room. Richard pulled his arms out of the blankets and reached for his journal. He’d been writing a new story that he thought he might be able to finish today.
“You know, Johann has a lot of gall diagnosing people, the way he’s been acting lately,” Sylvia said.
Richard looked up. “You know, you say this as you drink opium on the floor of an abandoned apartment.”
“Hm? Oh, I know I have problems, but at least I don’t go around saying, ‘you, you have a problem. Ignore my extremely nervous, pale, and thin exterior, I know what’s best for you.’ Don’t you think it’s just a little f-”
“I think that you just hate doctors,” Richard said.
“Can’t stand them. My father never let one in to see me, and look at me now.”
Sylvia Sapping, a twenty-one-year-old half-greek woman with long dark hair that came down to her waist, an almost circular face, and wide eyes, sat against the wall of an abandoned apartment, wearing rags and drinking laudanum. She didn’t seem to have any illnesses, at least no visible ones, and wasn’t currently injured. She also wasn’t as bony as she could have been; there was a good amount of flesh on her and even some fat around her face and on her legs. Those last two factors alone made her very successful, at least as far as Richard could tell. He smiled. “I suppose you’re doing alright.”
“But, am I?”
“… You look like you are. Is something wrong? If there is, you know that I’m always ready to listen.”
Sylvia was silent for a few moments, before she swallowed the last of her bottle of laudanum and turned to him. “I’m scared, Richard.”
“Yeah, really scared.”
“What of?” He could have made a tasteless joke about doctors here, but Richard kept his mouth shut.
“Well, em, I guess I’m scared of a lot of things. I’m scared you might die, then who would run the gang? Scared of illness in general, but doctors, too. There’s Johann, I’m scared because he’s been acting strangely. I’m scared for Deirdre because of the attachment she seems to have to him. Jean and Tate scare me, but for different reasons. Jean’s dog is scary, and sometimes when he goes out at night he comes back with a lot of… cuts… and I don’t know what he’s doing or where he gets them, but it worries me. Tate, he’s just… just bad. I don’t want to talk about him or what he does to- to- um…”
“You don’t have to,” Richard said. “Please, if it makes you uncomfortable, don’t.”
Sylvia shifted, nodded, and cleared her throat. “He’s the kind of person who gave Deirdre the bad memories she has.”
“Why not throw him out?”
“Because I’m scared of him.”
“You think he might hurt you if you do?”
“He’s already hurt me, Richard. I suppose I’m afraid he’ll hurt me further, or hurt someone I care about.”
“That’s a valid thought.”
They sat there silently for a few minutes, before Sylvia said, “I saw my stepfather today, did you know that?”
Richard took a long drink from his bucket. “You have a stepfather?”
“Oberon. Like Shakespeare?”
Sylvia laughed longer and harder than he’d expected.”Yes, Richard. Just like Shakespeare.”
“Where did you see him?”
“Outside of an opium den. He was going in, and I know he was going in to use the drug, because I hung around there for hours today and he didn’t come out.” Sylvia cracked a smile. “He’s married to my maman, always has been, and when we went to live in France it was because of him. Maman went to stay with him, so we came along, and I met him there.”
“What do you think of him?”
“What I think of him changes often, and is based on memory, mostly. I remember that sometimes, he was my good friend, sometimes my worst, detested enemy. He taught me many things, both how to love and how to hate. I was very close with him, for a time, but he often drove me away, and I grew closer to my blood father, and then we were friends again, and then we were not. It was confusing and sometimes, hm, hard, but he taught me how I could manage my own feelings, not so far different from his own.” Sylvia had another bottle of laudanum, which she opened and drank from. “I hadn’t seen him in years. I supposed for the longest time that he was dead.”
“Well, maybe you should go up to him and speak with him.”
“If I can find him again, not drugged out of his mind.” Sylvia sighed and slid down until she was lying on the floor. “I just want to forget that I’m alive right now, Richard. Is that too much to ask? Please leave me alone.”
Richard put down his journal and picked up his sketchbook. He began a scene of waves crashing against rocks, with the largest, most outlandish bird he could draw flying overhead. The room became peaceful, with Sylvia silently lying in a daze of opium on the floor, and Richard quietly sketching. The only sounds were their breathing, the scratch of his pencil, and occasionally Sylvia shifting on the floor. Richard finished his drawing and laid back against his pallet. He shivered, and drew his blanket back over himself.
“Sylvia?” he asked.
“Are you alright?”
She groaned again.
“Do you need anything?”
“Emotional stability,” Sylvia said.
“Anything I can physically provide for you?”
“You’re the one who’s dying, Richard. If you need something, let me get it for you. I’m alright – well, I’m not, but whatever. You don’t need to help me while you’re sick.”
Richard sank deeper into his nest of blankets. Actually, he did need to help her, if he didn’t want to be a bad person. “Well, if you need anything-”
They lapsed into silence again. Eventually, the peace was disturbed by the return of Jean Gévaudan.
Jean wasn’t as injured as he usually was upon return, though, which was good. He entered the empty apartment to toss Sylvia another bottle of laudanum, which she caught. Jean looked like he was himself on a high, with his wild eyes and wide grin. His face and frock coat were splashed with blood, and his hair was knotted with some kind of thick red substance. His hands, too, were so bloody he seemed to be wearing red gloves, as if he had been scratching at someone to kill them.
“Bought this for you,” Jean said. “I saw your father.”
“He’s dead,” said Richard. “He died once, about four weeks ago, and then someone mutilated his body, and they called it a ‘second death.’”
“I saw him. He has died again. I brought the paper, if you wanted to read about it.”
“Did you also see my stepfather?” Sylvia asked.
“Your stepfather is who?”
“In that case, we are almost siblings! He is my blood father. Yes, I did see him, he was-”
“Opium? I wouldn’t be surprised if he was having another go. It takes a lot to get us under the influence of anything.” Sylvia punctuated her sentence by draining half of her current bottle of laudanum.
“He was just in the square. Talking with someone.”
“Yeah, okay.” Sylvia drank more of her laudanum. “What about my mother?”
“I saw her, as well.”
“What was she doing?”
“She was with another woman, I think.”
“That makes sense. See any of my brothers or sisters?”
“You don’t count. Blood relations?”
“No.” Jean handed the paper to Richard. “I hope you feel better, Richy Richard.”
Richard picked up the paper and saw that the very first page article was about Dominic Sapping.
A chill shook him, and he coughed violently. Sylvia looked over at him with eyes that were glazed over from the laudanum, then looked away. Richard dropped the paper and pulled the blankets up around himself, shivering and desperately trying to breathe. He looked up, and saw his father standing in the doorway. Heat emanated off of him, which made Richard crawl closer to the door. Sylvia didn’t move, Jean had gone, and no one stopped him. He reached out for the hem of his father’s pants, feeling the heat coming off it in waves, thawing Richard’s frozen fingers. He was about to make contact with the cloth, when his father whipped away.
“I bet you wonder about Dominic Sapping,” his father said.
“A bit,” said Richard. “The papers make it seem like he came back from the dead.”
“Shockingly and disappointingly, the papers are right about something for once.”
His father smirked. “Go and talk to Johann Faust, I would say. Go and speak to him about what he’s been doing, exactly. You’ll find out more than you need to know.”
Richard was silent for a moment. “I have a question.”
“Was Camilla right?”
“Camilla. She gave a speech on how nothing matters because no one cares and everything dies, and there’s no afterlife, and all that. Was she right?”
His father paused. “There is an afterlife. And I can tell you, what you do does matter. It matters very much, I’m afraid.”
“That’s a relief,” Richard said. He felt a wave of satisfaction at knowing he had been right, but he pushed it down. A good person wouldn’t feel so good about this.
“Do you have another question?”
“Are you really here, or am I hallucinating you?”
His father sighed. “I’m here for real. Unfortunately.”
“Is the afterlife nice?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because I think I’m about to end up there.”
“Don’t worry, I can say with authority that this sickness won’t kill you. Go and rest, son.”
“One more question?”
“Why are you here now?”
It was a while before his father answered. “It’s Faust’s fault. Go and talk to him and I’m sure he’ll explain everything.”