“Twelve dreams for the red queen under crown of stone.
Eight voracious beasts born from eight restless nights.
Four nails piercing the flesh of the sinner.
One prayer for the summoned called by this song.”
“Thirteen commensals around the holy flesh and blood over the table.
Nine the nights for the darkest dream to turn into despair.
Five the claws of the beast hidden within its lair.
Two the points between a distance crossed through more faith than fable.”
The past resembles the future more than one drop of water resembles another, for every minute, the future is becoming the past.
And the past could be very well compared to a house: without its due foundations, the structure is bound to sink and crumble, as if it was never built in the first place.
For without the heritage of the past, we cannot hope for the new blood of the future.
He remembered not having the luxury to think in too deep since he first set foot on France.
The tragedy the newspapers had been proclaimed since the infamous Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand four years ago on Sarajevo paled in comparison of the uncanny horror one man experiences first-hand frontline of fire at the trenches.
And there’s more salt to add to the wound if said man has the minimum military preparation to face the worst, but not the soul of a combatant willing to die for his homeland… and kill in its name.
His day-to-day battle had been consisting on keep men alive at any cost, even if said cost came with a hostile environment that knew nothing about hygiene and care, rudimentary means to mimic the surgical instruments he was deprived of and questionable sources of timed out chemicals that, refined and combined the right way, could produce a very poor substitute of drugs and disinfectants that could keep butchered bodies from dying either by blood loss or sepsis.
His fight had been against death itself when taking life was the common coin to buy survival.
He hadn’t been a killer.
"Jonathan, you okay, pal?"
He had been dreaming again, sleeping the hangover of so many fireworks bombarding his brains for so long he couldn’t remember how silence used to feel.
Rolling on his bunk bed, even with the sudden illness that got his stomach the very second he opened his eyes, he still had the reflexes and deference to make the owner of that voice aside before he violently spilled his guts on the wooden floor of the ship they were traveling at the time.
For they were returning home. Returning after months and months transformed in three whole years of existence in semi-automatic state where trying not to die while keeping nameless and faceless flesh from going still and rot had been the only way to remain with a slight resemblance of sanity.
Returning after having become willingly more machine than man, more body than soul… and more taker of lives instead of the healer he was supposed to be.
A healer that cannot heal the horror his eyes had seen… and the inability to retain whatever scarce supper he had forced himself to eat aboard this cursed ship.
Oh, how he hated sailing, ships, the sea and everything that had to do with staying over a deceiving flat surface that kept on jumping, shaking and generally moving, making his otherwise impeccable sense of equilibrium and orientation get as unbalanced as possible.
After those strange three years he didn’t remember how seasick he had gotten the first time he went to Europe, no matter how supposedly “short” the trip was meant to be.
Panting heavily, he inhaled twice before recovering his usual composure and his voice came out without a hint of the shakiness he felt inside.
"Apologies." – he rumbled smoothly, a true son of the social status that has groomed him so well – "I am afraid I forgot how sailing trips used to feel. It seems that I am not going to get used to it ever."
"It’s okay, man, it’s okay. ‘fter all, a doctor can very well fall ill just as the rest of us, eh?"
That man’s voice… he seemed amicable enough and Jonathan remembered his face among the waves of the wounded and the dead. He had been his roommate since the ship sailed from Calais, and he had been keeping company to him.
An Irishman for sure, for his thick accent and his slang betrayed that much among other things such as his physical shape as well… or the slightly aged face he sported despite being around ten years younger than Jonathan himself for sure… the social status said man had pertained before partaking in the now ceased war as a soldier, was clear as a sunny day.
Yes, Jonathan could deduce that much from him… but, to his shame, he couldn’t remember the man’s name for his life. He had been so proactive back at the battlefield at not willing himself to get attached in any way to any living entity that could die tomorrow… that he, somehow, had forgotten how to look at another person and see them with any other eye but the clinical one.
Willing himself to feign feeling as alright as he could muster in order to clean the mess he had created himself in the first place, once he got the thing decently cleaned, he excused himself and went outside for a walk to calm the dizziness and the unsavory feeling at the pit of his stomach.
The night was clear and cold, without stars twinkling in the vast roof of the sky and nothing but the darkness itself to keep him company in the long hours he willed himself to remain awake until dawn broke and the other passengers, ex-soldiers like him mostly, went outside to enjoy the blinding and cold white sun that unending autumn brought to them.
He returned inside at the very instant he detected the cheerful talk and easy camaraderie between them.
For he knew nobody there and he couldn’t summon the strength to socialize with people that was all the same to him.
For he saw them as the nameless and faceless flesh he had kept patching up while fighting in a war that had got the best of him.
Because to him, deep inside… those men weren’t even worthy of being considered human anymore.
Day after day, as the weeks and months passed, she hated more and more her job.
What was she doing there, in the first place? What was she making of her career in a foreign country, with a foreign language and a foreign currency nobody within the whole fucking European Union understood how it worked but the people that populated this shitty land where the only remarkable thing were the grass and the constant rain that fed the unnatural quick grow of said grass?
Their weather was shitty, their food and gastronomy were insulting, their lifestyle was boring, their taxes and prices, in general, were outrageous, and their opening and closing hours for business were ridiculous.
For fuck’s sake, even their inverted driving lanes made no sense at all!
What the Hell was she doing here?
"Miss Días, a word if you please."
Oh, right. After the daily question she so often asked to herself internally, she always got the same answer: she was working.
"I have noticed that the last batch of blood analysis is suffering from severe delay and you know very well that our hospital isn’t in a situation that can afford a single complaint coming from any of the patients this month."
She was exercising her profession after years of fiasco after fiasco in her own homeland, where sanitary professionals were plenty and the available jobs on the private sector were scarce and underpaid.
"I’m afraid I cannot stress to you the importance of the swift delivering of results as our services are putting at test in front of the Sanitary Inspection that we can undergo any time soon since that last… impeachment regarding you-know-what."
And don’t let me start about the public health service, for that sector in particular was out of question with someone like her. Someone who needed to pay her monthly bills and who couldn’t afford to let the years pass idly without contribute to the Social Security with working time so in the future she could get a semi-decent pension when she got old and she will be forced to retire, as she would prepare some tough and rather competitive oppositions where, without well-placed connections, you had to demonstrate by means of a very extensive and pretty unfair exam that you were the first of your Promotion.
No matter you were the best at the practical field of your specialty, you ought to demonstrate that you were a swot that has the retentive capacity of a parrot, quoting word by word what the Temary says, or you can either hit the road.
She wasn’t a theoretic person, for fuck’s sake! She had the ropes and the needed knowledge to exercise with most excellence!
Knowledge, especially where health was involved, should be demonstrated through a practical test, not through some pretty words copied line by line on several folios that cost you money each try and that nobody would care about once your worth it’s showed on the field.
"I’m well aware that, since the incident, we have lost yet another critical percentage of our staff. The situation is not being an easy one for any of us."
Fed up with working in a ridiculous supermarket with a more ridiculous income despite having a respectable Medicine Degree with an actual Pathology Specialization, high ambitions and a pretty decent C1 English level, three years ago she had made a decision to try her luck in U.K.
The Skype interview, her nice University qualifications, and her enthusiasm had been her passport to a formerly prestigious hospital right in the heart of the country: London.
But life in a foreign country, especially England, had not been as smooth as she had anticipated.
"However, I’m sure you understand that doing your best even if that means working a few extra hours, will worth maintaining your employment and, by extension, the much-needed support this hospital needs in order to make it to the next year. Yes?"
Not even a year after her arrival, in 2016 June British people had voted in favor to the infamous Brexit, a measure that implied and still implies two years and a half later that United Kingdom would withdraw from the European Union and all the consequences that followed suit.
With such a situation shaking the country, many of her colleagues, European outlanders from very different backgrounds like her, had quit to find fortune in France and Germany, the two more potent countries within the European Union that held the promise of well-remunerated work and whose languages were relatively easy to learn.
And she had found herself running the laboratory practically alone, with time limits quite challenging to meet giving the situation, incessantly accosted by the Medical Staff, not to mention overworking and overtiring herself more hours than she can bother to count.
Of course, those extra hours were incredibly well-remunerated, yes, but she practically had no social life or hobbies because she arrived so exhausted at her flat, that she often even forsook to get something consistent into her stomach in favor to obtain some quality sleep.
That had led her to start losing weight until having today a magnificently skinny and cadaver-like shape. But she was always so tired that she couldn’t summon the will to look in the mirror and find herself abnormally pale, ugly and gaunt. She couldn’t afford the luxury of time for such frivolities now.
In fact, she couldn’t afford the time to return the calls from her besties, Cristina and Paula, or texting her sister Pilar to have some quality, girl-talking time with them and catching on the last news.
She usually went a week or so to Spain every six months when her tight schedule allowed her. Otherwise, she would, quite literally, forsake her legal vacation time… even if she had become so workaholic that she truly never disconnected full percent from her job.
Not even when she returned to the sun and the long bright days full of color, to the nostalgic and much-needed Madrid accent and the good tasty stuff to savor on meals with a nice cold, frozen glass of good tinto de verano* with a juicy slice of orange and lemon…
"Miss Días, are you listening to me at all?"
Blinking once, she didn’t bother to hide the bored expression that had settled on her features while hearing the same old rant from the same good ol’ Mrs. Danvers. Administrative advisor of the Medical Council of Pembroke Hospital, one of the oldest buildings in London that still had a public purpose instead of becoming a museum or part of the many old buildings that now pertained to British Cultural Heritage; Mrs. Danvers was the person responsible to make things run smoothly in the Pembroke… and being her very personal Cerberus.
How old was she, anyway? More than sixty, for damn sure. Shouldn’t she be retired, a voluntary to one of those second-hand establishments to help associations or rather sitting on a bench in one of the many parks within the city, feeding the crows?
She herself looked like a raven with that bird-like predatory gaze and that big aquiline nose she liked so much to stick where it didn’t belong…
"Yeah, yeah, whatever…" - she sighed herself, tired of hearing the rigorous same speech the old crone liked a tad too much to remind her from time to time. She already knew about that particular incident she was talking about and her patience was starting to grow very thin considering said incident had truly not been her fault, but the shithead of a nurse that got the sample wrongly tagged so the poor guy got the wrong diagnosis and ended up with the wrong blood transfusion. Now the guy was critical and his wife wanted to frame the hospital and its staff’s bad praxis – "I’ll get the whole batch done today, sorry for the delay, I know the extent of the shit we got into, blah, blah, blah. Got the message, thank you very much." – she spoke almost automatically, swiftly and with that drone monotone voice tone she knew the older woman hated so much - "Good evening to you, Mrs. Danvers. And now, please allow me to continue with my work. Yes?" – she finished rather petulantly, like a bratty child who felt entitled (and knew she could do it without getting fired anyway) to show her displeasure about a situation nobody was to blame for, but rather an unfortunate tense circumstance.
Mrs. Danvers furrowed her neatly trimmed and painted eyebrows with a slight grimace as if she had just smelled something particularly awful. She couldn’t stand the prideful, unmannered Spaniard woman who was half a head shorter than her and looked up at her with such dispassion and an insulting lack of interest that sometimes Mrs. Danvers secretly wished that the infuriating younger woman would fall ill, so she could have some respite from dealing with her on a daily basis.
Since she had arrived three years ago, she had disliked her haughty body language and her atrocious Spanish accent, which sounded crude and harsh to some particular consonants when she rolled them on her tongue.
Now, with those three years behind and being the only living soul capable of running almost on her own the entire laboratory while still observing scrupulously the QoS, she was so high on her horse that nobody had the gall to threaten with firing her. Just to placate that shameful pride of hers, an unfortunately common trait amongst her countrymen.
Spaniards were hot-blooded people prone to laughing, speaking and arguing too loud in public spaces, not having an ounce of shame or respect to the rest of the world around them as if they owned the place.
Following her forty years working at the Pembroke since she was a young woman, Danvers had known enough Spanish men to know better. And their women were not much different.
And this one gathered in one person the worst of her people.
"Very well." – she replied dryly - "Good evening to you, Miss Días." – she added while she parted closing the door after her with slightly more force that was really necessary.
Eyeing the door with a suddenly contemptible black gaze, the aforementioned Spaniard woman hissed.
"Y es Díaz, “Doña” Danvers." – she said in her native language, a language she was proud of – "¡Díaz con zeta, joder, no “Días”! Que, por no tener, no tenéis ni la menor intención de pronunciar las cosas correctamente. Como sois los putos amos teniendo el inglés, el resto de idiomas y culturas os la sudan, ¿no? Jodidos británicos de mierda…"(1) - she growled bitterly, disgusted by her situation, annoyed on a daily basis by people who didn’t give a crap about her and her hard work.
She was exercising her studies and living on her own with some dignity, yes, but she felt trapped in a country that wasn’t being easy on her, an antisocial thirty-one-year-old angry woman who didn’t believe in what she was doing anymore.
She didn’t give a crap about the people whose blood, epidermal tissues, urine, and feces she analyzed every day. She didn’t give a crap about the Pembroke Hospital or its precarious status.
Hell, she didn’t give a crap about any of the hospital staff or their daily struggle to meet the standards.
The only thing she cared about was herself and the money she was earning there.
The rest of the world was blood, piss, shit, and skin. It was easier that way.
It was easier looking at the people and sort them out by their cellular composition than their true worth as individuals. It was easier to look at them and see particles that constructed a whole instead of human beings.
That way she could ignore the fact that she felt depressed and completely isolated from the real world. That way she could ignore that she was human as well.
Stirring a bit, she returned to her work with the music on her smartphone perforating her eardrums, numbing the rest of her senses, allowing her to keep going as if she had submerged in a blissful nothingness… until she caught herself multitasking, with the aforementioned blood batch having being finished almost an hour ago.
"¿Qué hora es…?" – she said lazily to nobody in particular until she checked her phone - "¡¿Las putas nueve y media?! ¡¿En serio, tío?!" – she let escape a heavy sigh from her lips while she pinched the bridge of her nose – "Dios… hoy no voy a dormir una mierda…"(2)
She had done that again. Staying far more than two extra hours from her usual schedule.
It was Tesco shopping for her again. No other supermarket was open this late, and her fridge would start growing cobwebs at this rate…
Tidying up her work environment, taking the samples to the small freezer, picking her plastic gloves and mask and dropping them to the trash and doing pretty much everything that would welcome her within a few hours again as much organized and sorted out as possible (she freely admitted that she was an order freak, so what?), she picked up her stuff on the changers, put on her sneakers and walked the corridors to get herself some fresh air and some nice salmon fillets before going to sleep for three or four hours, if she got lucky.
The usual, really.
That’s why, used to the monotone schedule of her repetitive days, she detected the novelty almost immediately when she saw the odd beam of white light coming from under the Morgue door.
She passed every day in front of that very door, and usually Poppy, the medical examiner who also ran alone that grim tiny part of the Pembroke, wasn’t working at this hour.
Poppy was a bitch, alright, but she was a bitch she could respect. Not many British women with her academic qualifications and competencies would renounce to exercise as physician of Generic Medicine in favor of being designated Forensic Examiner of an unsavory Morgue within a hospital with so many internal issues and scandalous lack of qualified staff that, among other things, called her “Dead Poopy” to her back, and she knew it. The woman wasn’t the nicest company to have around, but she had some guts.
Deciding that checking on her wouldn’t do any ill since it was pretty late, she opened the door without knocking.
"Poppy? Poppy, it’s Carmen." – she wasn’t so dehumanized to not to offer her at least the chance for a fast supper, as she was sure Poppy wouldn’t be so bitchy to not to appreciate the gesture. Both were in the same ship, after all, and some good-natured exchange perhaps would do wonders for both their shitty temperaments. Between “cold bitches” like them, there was some degree of a, on the other hand, much-needed understanding - "Got tangled with work today? You hungry? Want something from Tesc…?" – but soon, her offer turned into a tiny strand of stalled voice – "Motherf…"
She didn’t know what she was saying or thinking anymore, for the amount of red splattering the walls and the floor were all her sight could process right at the moment.
All she could smell. All she could hear, pumping in her ears like a war drum.
Blood. Crimson, fresh and shiny blood.
And the source of the suddenly so scandalous liquid was none other than her colleague Poppy, who was lying on her back, somehow still alive if the nervous twitches on both her eyes and hands were any indication. But not for much.
For, above her, viciously sinking both his hands and face inside her open ribcage, was a hunched man.
Making wet and munching, stomach-wreaking, noises as he devoured the tender flesh of the dying woman with both a horrifying and mesmerizing gluttony that spoke of desperation and enjoyment in equal quantities, the said man resembled in the way he scratched the open wound and fed more beast than human.
The shock from the grotesque image in front of her was so great that Carmen, for a moment, lost completely her ability to speak.
Or to scream.
However, her reflexes returned to her in a most violent way the very second the beastly man got up and, still hunched, turned around to face her.
The moment he smiled and showed his sharp teeth all coated in an uncanny mixture of saliva, blood, and bits of organic remains, she was still paralyzed. Mostly because, if anthropomorphic, that creature smiling to her wasn’t human. Not anymore.
It looked… more like a corpse, if she had to pick an adjective. Its flesh was eroded and slightly rotten, patches of skin absent all over its anatomy.
But its eyes… so ferocious, so yellow, so deranged…
What she had before her eyes wasn’t human, and it was a natural predator.
However, the moment it screeched at Carmen, pearling her with drops of blood as it did, she finally managed to get herself together soon enough to dodge the violent bump it threw at her with a five-digit clawed hand.
The next she knew was herself getting out of the room in a desperate mad daze along the corridor towards the exit… and the growl behind her before the non-human creature materialized itself out of thin air between her and her salvation.
Moving slowly backwards, as if fearing to worsen her already bad situation, she started to teeth grinding while her nape and back collected a drenching cold sweat.
"Esto no está pasando…" - she murmured between her teeth, her eyes almost out of their sockets as they registered the image of the ghoulish thing getting nearer and nearer – "No, esto no está puto pasando…"(3)
Then she found seconds later herself painfully pushed to the ground, and she finally managed to scream when the inhuman thing bite her left arm when she had risen it in a defensive gesture.
Feeling how a seizing burning sensation set the nerves of her arm on fire as if were being torn out, she screamed and screamed, fighting and twisting on the floor where a pool of dark dense blood started to form and engulfed her from head to toe as the weight of the creature drop heavily beside her while a pair of cold arms embraced her.
Carmen didn’t know what was happening as the white-hot pain in her arm started to spread towards her neck and left breast. Whatever the poison or the infection, it was advancing at a fast pace.
"What happened?!" – an unknown voice… so distant…
"She was attacked!" – then another voice… so close she could literally feel it rumble along her sore spine… so smooth… so deep… - "The Skal has bitten her!"
What a beautiful voice…
"Oh my God! A Skal? Here?" – the distant voice sounded incredulous - "How could this have happened?! I was monitoring her, I swear!"
"Call the others, I will take care of this." – oh, the wonderful voice… so clear… such a nice pronunciation… so warm… - "Now!" – then silence, a silence that brought a darkness that started to absorb her – "Carmen. Carmen, listen to me. Do not let it grasp you. Do not die, not now. You heard me?"
That voice was all she could hear… the cold proximity all she could feel… and she thought that dying listening to such a voice couldn’t be so bad after all…
She thought all of her body was now pulsating as waves of fire hit her, like a blast of life coursing through her veins. She felt her insides melt as her physical perception turned liquid, hot rich liquid spreading all over her skin, overflowing every pore of her epidermis.
Her bones felt like jelly as if any consistency was never there in the first place. She was the ocean, and the fire inside her a neverending tide, giving her gravity. Her lips were moist, pulsating with the many words she would never speak. The feelings that would never see the surface.
Then her world fell down in total darkness.
He remembered the small settlement of Dover only because its port had been the one from he had sailed from England to Calais when he had presented himself voluntary for the now so-called Great War.
But nothing had been great about this war, about any war, he suspected.
With stable, solid ground under his feet, he had been given indications about where to find a Post Office that had telegraph service.
His first thoughts when he had gotten out of the damnable ship had been to make his family aware of his return.
He likely would direct the telegram to Mary, as her last letter had informed him that their mother was very ill.
He had been too preoccupied with this news that he had failed to notice at first that the port of Dover had been practically deserted, not a soul to be seen except himself and the other ex-soldiers coming from the war.
After posting the telegram to Mary’s name, he went to the railway station to ask for a ticket to the next train that went directly to London to find, desolated, that news from the Capital spoke of the terrifying epidemic that had been spreading along all Europe since the last year and, through the soldiers coming home, had grown some roots in England to stay for a while: the Spanish Flu.
Spanish press, being not subjected to the wide censorship many European Nations have imposed about the war in general and its consequences, had been the first to warn the public about this new epidemic, so it owed its name to that.
Jonathan had treated quite the number of cases of this illness back at the battlefield, and he had been investigating ways to cure the pathogen, but giving the poor instrumental he had there, his investigations had been rendered fruitless.
Sighing heavily, ticket in hand and almost eight hours ahead until the train to London arrived, Jonathan raked his fingers along his hair, his black coal hair fashioned in the military way, and consulted his pocket watch rather absently.
He knew cases like his were not uncommon amongst many ex-soldiers and all he needed was to come terms to himself and what he had done back in France.
But he couldn’t summon the courage to even give it a name, a meaning in his rational mind.
He still had the buzzing of the shooting, the deafening explosions of the bombs and the cries of the men deeply ingrained within his soul, if there was a rational and medical explanation for such a spiritual notion.
He couldn’t forget… how the tent had blown before his very own eyes… how his colleague, within a fraction of a second, had been no more than ashes… and how he had survived.
How he, still disorientated from the explosion and the force that had propelled him backwards and had blinded him for a moment, had regained the reign over his body and had grabbed a fallen rifle…
“Killing is a hell a lot easier than healing.”
No, no! He wouldn’t go down that path, not yet.
He just needed to sleep… to fell into that blissful coma white that had been denied to him for so long that he wondered if he would sleep well again ever.
He would wait for the train, anyway. He wasn’t hungry, and he needed some time alone.
Alone with the cold breeze that smelled of the ocean and announced the proximity of winter.
Alone with this blissful silence that he was starting to remember and enjoying with all his might.
Alone with his denial and his inner monsters, lying dormant in wait under the surface.