Afterwards, Henry decided that he had probably caught it in the airport lounge, where several people had been coughing. Or it might have been on the plane. Probably not at the medical conference, unless it was on the first day. One has to consider the incubation period. At any rate, he had a slightly—almost imperceptibly—scratchy throat on the flight back. The following day it was distinctly sore, but not enough to worry about. He didn’t bother to tell Abe, but went to work as usual. As he autopsied a gang shooting and a heart attack (as Lucas persisted in referring to them, ignoring their previous humanity), he answered more questions about the conference than he did about the bodies. Not all cases are mysterious, after all. In fact, most of them are downright routine.
The following day, he had a very sore throat, his glands were a bit swollen, and he had a slight cough. He diagnosed the common cold. He tried to stifle the cough at breakfast; but Abe heard him as he collected his coat and hat. Henry pooh-poohed the suggestion that he stay home and headed for the subway; and his son shook his head, not for the first time, over his father’s obstinacy. At work, Lucas seemed oblivious to the fact that his boss was under the weather; but, when Jo Martinez came by to talk about the gang shooting, she asked if he were feeling okay. “Just a bit of a scratchy throat,” he said, downplaying it; and she told him to take care of himself. It was kind of her, he thought, but hardly necessary. (Not that she knew the half of it.)
Next morning, Henry rose reluctantly, and shaved and dressed rather more slowly than usual. He made his way downstairs in the full knowledge that Abe would be expecting him to eat a good breakfast; but his throat felt too sore to swallow. He went into the kitchen to find that, bright and early, his son had made pancakes. There was syrup warming in a saucepan on the stove; and, as he entered, Abe turned, spatula in one hand and plate in the other, to ask how many he wanted.
“…. .. .., …..,” said Henry.
“What?” asked Abe. “Sorry, I missed that. How many pancakes, Dad? Up to five, anyway. I want some myself, after all.”
None for me, said Henry—in his head, anyway. What came out, however, was once again, “…. .. ..,” which rather startled him. He opened his mouth, and tried (rather more consciously) to utter an answer. No sound came out. Indeed, his entire throat seemed to be paralysed.
“Dad?” Abe stepped forward in concern, still holding the spatula and plate. “You’re going to have to speak up. I can’t hear you.”
“.’. …… ..,” said Henry, in vain frustration. Yes, indeed: he was trying to. It was just that nothing was coming out. Then, as Abe walked closer, “..! …. ….!”
Henry backed away desperately, waving his hands wildly to fend Abe off. Stay back, stay back!!! he thought he said. However, all that came out of his mouth was silence.
Abe kept on coming, even as he backed off; and Henry thought, with a weird humour, that, if anyone could see them, it must look like a scene from a TV sitcom. But it wasn’t funny. If his cold was this bad, then it was a more than “common” cold; and he really didn’t want Abe to catch it.
“Dad? What’s wrong? Stop playing around.”
With a sudden lunge sideways, Henry grabbed the notepad that sat by the phone and then reached for the pen in his inside jacket pocket. He wrote just one word, and held the pad out at arms’ length.
Abe peered close. “Laryngitis?” he said incredulously. “What? You mean you can’t speak?”
“… …. …… … … .. ….,” said Henry wryly.
“What? Oh, for God’s sake, Dad—you’re going to have to talk louder.”
Several impatiently written notes later, Henry left for work. Abe tried; but Henry was adamant. It was just a cold, he still insisted. (All right, a bad cold.) That was not sufficient reason to stay home. Well, not if one remembered back to the days of Queen Victoria, when there was no such thing as paid sick leave and one worked through anything short of typhus or got fired.
That evening, Henry arrived home flushed and coughing. Deep vibrant shaking coughs, they were. To protect Abe from germs, he flashed his hand up to cover his mouth (for generations of habit are not altered easily), and said, “.’. ….. .. .. .. ….,” repeating this more than once before Abe silently proferred the notepad.
“I’m going up to my room,” Henry wrote, and was halfway up the stairs—albeit at a slow and miserable walk—before Abe said, “What about dinner?”
“….’. … …….. .. …,” said Henry.
Abe sighed. He couldn’t hear what his father had said, but the look on his face was pretty clear. “You didn’t eat breakfast. Did you have any lunch?”
Abe cleared his throat. “Yes or no. Did you have lunch?”
Henry dithered uncertainly (his reaction being easy for his son to read), finally decided that “just coffee” didn’t really qualify as lunch, exactly, and shook his head.
“Well, I’m not letting you go without food,” declared Abe. “You’ve got to eat.”
“.’. … ……..”
“Not hungry?” guessed Abe. “Hah! I bet your throat’s sore!”
“How’s about I make you an omelette? What do you say? A nice omelette? That’ll slide down easy.”
Henry sighed. It was pretty clear that he wasn’t going to be let off without eating (and, as a doctor, he had to admit that—from a medical perspective—the proper nourishment of the patient was vital to a swift recovery).
“…, … .….,” he said reluctantly, and nodded.
Abe brought the omelette up later on a tray; and, holding his breath, Henry took it into his room, shutting the door firmly as his son tried to come in. Then, for good measure, he locked it, just to be sure.
An omelette, he decided as he slowly managed to swallow its bland slipperiness, was just the ticket for someone with as sore a throat as he had.
Half an hour later, though, he had so severe a coughing fit that he brought it all back up.
There was no doubt the following day that Henry would be staying home. Abe pointed out that neither Lucas nor any of Henry’s police colleagues would want to catch his cold, handed over another tray—this time with a bowl of cream-of-wheat and a glass of orange juice—and went off to the drugstore. There he bought Echinacea, cough syrup, Dristan, Kleenex, and facial masks; and, donning one of the last of these, presented the others to Henry.
He dutifully dosed himself, and did not tell Abe that another coughing fit had sent breakfast the same way as last night’s omelette.
The Kleenex was welcome, for he had run out of proper handkerchiefs. He promptly put one to good use. Whether any of the medications served to mitigate his symptoms was another matter.
Certainly, his cough persisted: not a light raspy, tickly cough, nor a hoarse clearing-the-throat cough. It was a deep, vibrant, hacking that brought him to his feet, throwing his whole body into it, bending half over to honk, honk, HONK … for minutes at a time, as his body sought to keep the lungs clear and the mucus flowing.
Yes, the Kleenex was very welcome.
That night, he got little sleep. When he lay on his back, he felt as though the muck in his nose was sliding down his throat to strangle him; and lying on his side was not much better. In the end, he felt most comfortable face down, nose half pressed into the pillow—and even that brought him little rest, since every few minutes he had to twist to sit up so that he might COUGH. Still, he thought, there was one good thing: so far, all was limited to the head area; and he had hopes that the cold would not go on the chest.
The following day was much the same.
By his third day home, the mucus he blew into the Kleenex began to thicken; and Henry thought this a good sign. There is, after all, a normal sequence to a cold: one starts with a sore throat, followed by a runny nose, at which point one often sneezes; the mucus thickens to stickiness that stimulates coughing, which shakes it loose; and finally all dries up, and one pulls long worm-like lengths of elastic out of the nose, after which one is well, barring perhaps a dry cough. So far, this cold—albeit severe—seemed to be following the pattern. Just one thing troubled him: usually the sore throat clears up around the runny-nose stage; yet his throat was still most painful. Still, that was probably just a minor variation.
Though … his whole mouth seemed to be coated with a thick nasty layer of … something … especially at the back over the velum.
Henry spent some time in front of the mirror in the bathroom trying to see his soft palate, but couldn’t make it out clearly. Mentally, he ran through the symptoms of diphtheria. It was one illness that he had not suffered personally, so he couldn’t be sure; but there was sufficient similarity….
When Abe brought his lunch of broth and grapes, Henry wrote that he wanted to go down to his laboratory to check something. He did not let Abe actually handle the note, covered with germs as it must be, but held it out at arms' length. With muffled reluctance (since he was wearing one of the masks), Abe let him go. Henry did not, however, set up petri dishes and take swabs. Instead, he unlocked a cupboard and removed a semi-automatic pistol, loaded the magazine, and slid it in. He checked that all was right, and disengaged the safety catch.
He raised the gun.
“Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Put that damn thing down!”
He lowered it a bit—but only a bit. “Abe, let me explain,” he tried to say, and was astonished (but pleased) to hear his voice again—admittedly very faint, but reasonably intelligible.
“You don’t need to explain.” His son came further into the room. “I can see what you’re doing; and it’s obvious why.”
“Then just leave and….” Henry hesitated. “Go to the water and wait. You know how it works.”
“Yeah, I know the drill,” said Abe. “But you’re not going to shoot yourself.”
“No? Why not?”
“Because I’m not going to let you,” declared Abe. Then, as it seemed Henry was about to protest, he waved his hand dismissively and added, “God damn it, Dad! Do you think you can go waltzing into work tomorrow fit as a fiddle and no questions asked? Use your head. Everyone knows you’re ill. In fact, everyone knows you’re really ill.” As Henry started to look doubtful, Abe went on, “And the rest of us when we’re sick, well, we just have to soldier on and get better in our own time. We don’t get to take the easy way out.”
“You think it’s easy?” protested Henry.
“I think you have that gun in your hand,” Abe retorted. “And it’s not to blow your nose with.”
Henry grimaced. Two things were sure: he was not going to shoot himself in front of his son; and Abe wasn’t about to leave him alone. He put the pistol down carefully on the lab bench.
“Try and get some sleep, Dad,” said Abe, coming in and removing the gun before his father could change his mind. “You look like hell.”
“Yes, all right,” Henry replied. Then he had to dance back again, waving Abe off as his son leaned closer to hear better.
Mask or no mask, Henry wasn’t taking chances. Abe was seventy, after all.
That evening, Henry was deeply tired. He had slept no more than an hour the first night, and perhaps five or ten minutes at a time since then. His true and valiant cough kept going, keeping the mucus from his lungs; yet he could sense that it was finally flagging. He yearned for sleep; and, as he lay—face-down, of course—in bed, he knew that if the cough let up long enough for him to drift to sleep, there would be a price to pay. He woke some three hours later in the knowledge that, while he was now rested and clear-headed, the cold (if that was truly what it was) had shifted to his chest. His breathing was heavy and laboured. He coughed, experimentally at first, and then harder; was able to draw a deep breath; and found that his lungs lacked the stiffness he associated with pneumonia. He diagnosed bronchitis: only the upper portion of his respiratory system was sore and sticky.
“Sticky”, in fact, seemed to be the order of the day. A piece of Kleenex, even when blown into just once, wound up with a curiously tacky quality. This Henry put down to microscopic particles of mucus being blown widely whenever he coughed or sneezed. His ears were clogged, and the ringing was extremely annoying. Furthermore, each time he managed a brief nap, he woke with his eyes seeled by glue-like tears. Stumbling blindly to the bathroom, he had to wash them clean before he could get them open.
He heard the bell above the shop door. He went to the head of the stairs and made out the voice of Jo Martinez.
“I just thought I’d come round and find out how Henry’s doing,” she said.
“He’s pretty sick,” said Abe. “Can hardly swallow a thing. Still, he’s got his voice back a bit.”
“Oh, that’s good.”
“Yeah, but I dunno … he doesn’t really seem to be getting better yet, if you see what I mean.”
“Has he seen a doctor?”
Henry did not wait to hear the answer, but made his way back to his bedroom, hoping that Abe would not let Jo up to see him. (He did not want her to catch it, either, after all.)
No, he had not been to a doctor. He didn’t need a doctor. He was a doctor.
Abe had other ideas. “A second opinion,” he suggested.
Henry heard him, through the tinnitus.
“I don’t need a second opinion to know that I have a bad cold,” he said. The mucus in the Kleenex was now heavily tinged with yellow, which meant a viral infection—and not Corynebacterium diphtheria as he had feared.
“Come on, Dad. What can it hurt?”
“Anyone I come in contact with on public transit,” Henry pointed out. “Or the taxi driver, if I go by cab.”
“Maybe so, maybe not. But maybe also they’ll prescribe some antibiotics for you and clear it right up.”
How could he be a doctor’s son and not know better than that? “It’s a virus,” said Henry patiently. “Antibiotics won’t work on it.”
“Yeah, if it is a virus,” Abe retorted. “Anyway,” he added in triumph, “what about secondary infections, huh? Did you think of that?”
This was followed by a frustrating cell phone call from Lucas, who had trouble making out what he said. (“Can you talk a bit louder?” was, by now, Henry’s least favourite sentence in the English language.) He too seemed to feel that a doctor’s visit was in order.
The next morning, Jo came round once again to put in her two cents’ worth. It was, Henry concluded, a conspiracy.
Abe made an appointment; and Henry reluctantly went, only to return a couple of hours later utterly exhausted. The diagnosis was bronchitis (which he already knew). It was probably caused by a coronavirus or norovirus (which he could have said himself). He had had to walk several blocks in the cold to an X-ray clinic to check whether he had pneumonia, even though neither he nor the other doctor thought it was actually true, but “just in case”. On top of all that, he now had an utterly useless prescription for antibiotics that did not work on viruses but which Abe insisted on going out immediately to fill.
He sat on the stairs, contemplating the “Closed” sign on the door of the shop. Then he hauled himself wearily to his feet. A lie-down would do him good. Then, turning on the bottom step, he failed to lift his foot quite high enough and stubbed his toe. Stopped abruptly short at the foot, he fell forward, trying to catch himself. Liquid suddenly began to pour out of his nose.
He snatched into his pocket for a handkerchief. Though he missed the first drops, he managed to catch most of the stuff—looking at it pooled on the cloth, it had to be at least thirty millilitres, he reckoned. One fluid ounce in American measure. (It would be more than thirty if he reverted to ounces in Imperial measure.) He looked at it more closely: thick as cream, and a brilliant yellow. More turmeric than saffron, he decided. In fact, it looked like nothing so much as hot dog mustard.
Shaking his head, he went for a cloth and mopped up the bit he’d missed. Then he put his handkerchief in the wash and grabbed a few Kleenex as substitute. Suddenly too tired to climb the stairs, he pulled out a kitchen chair and sat down.
His head nodded.
The phone! Henry’s head jerked up. Trained to the bell like Pavlov’s dog, he stumbled up and across the kitchen to the land line. At the other end was nothing more urgent than a telephone tout trying to sell him a newspaper subscription, and he hung up without speaking. Automatically, he drew a—
—tried to draw a—
—tried to draw a—
—couldn’t draw a—!
His chest seemed to be mired in glue. He dragged in, but no air came through. His throat seemed to be sealed!
He couldn’t breathe! He’d die! He’d die!
And then he felt a terrible peace. Why should he fight for breath? Why shouldn’t he let himself die? After all, death was a natural end to disease: no one could know that better than he, who had died so many times. If he died of this, too … well, Abe couldn’t say that was “easy”, could he?
He resigned himself to his fate.
Then adrenaline kicked in. A hundred million years of evolution cannot be overruled by two centuries of immortality. His diaphragm clenched, yanking HARD, and HARD again. The suction broke, his bronchii opened, and sweet, sweet air flowed into his lungs.
It took a good half hour to get over the reaction, during which Henry headed down once more to the laboratory but found that Abe had forestalled him by locking the door. Clearly, there was going to be no swift release: as with so many illnesses in decades gone by, he was indeed going to have to endure this to the end.
It took another week or so for Henry to recover. More or less. There was still a slight ringing in his ears, he had a persistent dry cough, and his voice was faint and husky; but he could breathe freely, which was nice. By that time, he had gone through three boxes of Kleenex and nearly two bottles of Dristan, and was firmly convinced that the cough medicine Abe had bought was nothing more than sugar water for all the good it did. Also, he felt limp as a boiled noodle.
On the other hand, he was well enough—in his opinion—to go to work. Certainly, he was long past the infectious period.
One day he came downstairs, therefore, dressed for work. He ate a good breakfast, clapped Abe on the shoulder and told him not to worry, checked the time on his pocket watch, and said he’d better be going or he’d be late.
Abe flipped the sign on the door to “Open” and leaned in the doorway, watching fondly as Henry walked off down the street. He smiled to himself. Sometimes sons need to look out for Dads, even if they do tend to think it works the other way. Faintly, he heard the music of Henry’s ringtone, saw him pull out his cell phone and answer it, and … shook his head. How long had it taken his father to submit to Lt. Reece’s insistence he be accessible 24/7? Probably Dad was being told the address where some body awaited his inspection. The job never stops.
Down the street, Henry absently stepped off the curb to cross the street, his attention all on the message. Abe jerked alert, seeing the traffic.
Then, briefly, there was a body on the ground. And then there wasn’t. Cars behind honked loudly as the driver got out of the car. He found nothing he could have hit, and got back in.
Abe sighed, and turned back into the store. As he went, he flipped the sign to “Closed”.