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Authors: Patrick Carman

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BOOK: Phantom File
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But the other boy, the younger one, Andrew, was by far the more dominant in spirit. He had the unusual trait of quietly contemplating the words of the mystics, sometimes for many hours in a row, at the age of four or five.

When they were ten and twelve, Howard was already studying medicine and thinking of becoming a doctor, which pleased his extremely wealthy father. And Howard was becoming worried about Andrew, who told his brother of something living within himself. “What do you mean by that, what is this something?” Howard would ask. Andrew couldn’t say, only that the more time he spent by himself, contemplating the sacred texts, the less lonely he was. He was, or so he said, never really alone. The something was always there, like a beast prowling around the edges of his soul.

When the boys were grown, Howard, with the help of his father, immersed himself in the study of nature and science and the human body. Books and more books, tools and instruments, a move to a larger township where he could find the materials and subjects he needed to expand his experimentation. Much was done in secret, until the parents passed away and the fortune was left to the elder son. A larger laboratory with bigger, bolder secrets followed. Strange machines, dark science, animals, and cadavers—all were torn apart, explored, and fashioned together again.

Andrew took a different path, far from people, in the great desert to the north. It was said that he spoke to no one but Howard, and to him only rarely when the older brother would come to the desert for answers to his deepest questions. Andrew continued to tell his brother of the growing presence within, how it was calm but powerful inside him. It was his gift, fully formed in the desert, and he felt he understood it completely. It was, Andrew believed, the power of the holy within him, the reward for unending meditation. His own prized possession he would one day bring to the world.

Years passed and the two men toiled in solitude. Howard worried about his brother, all alone and growing more wild every year. He ate and drank almost nothing, talked to no one, had only the sacred texts and the snakes and the bugs and the sand as his constant companions.

Then a great war came, and everything changed.

Here I stopped Rainsford, unable to hold my tongue any longer. What war was he speaking of? He must be speaking of Napoleon, of the terrible events in the recent past, but I couldn’t say for sure and he wouldn’t be drawn away into dates and details. What other war could it have been?

I daresay it was Howard’s letter, sent by secret messenger, that finally brought Andrew out of the wilderness. Howard was at his wit’s end, doing his duty as a doctor and watching men die on the table a thousand times over. He begged for Andrew to come, to comfort him, to help if he could. “This war will drive me mad. You must help me!”

It was the first time in the hearing of the story that I began to wonder if Rainsford was
himself
insane. His voice rose and I feared we would wake Percy or Lord Byron. If not for the abundant pouring of wine the evening before, I believe they would have woken and cut short our night in the kitchen. I would never have heard what next arose among the cupboards on that dark night, the very heart of a madman coming into full view.

Howard and Andrew worked side by side for many months in the violent fever of men killing men. The great healer and the great physician, working in tandem, made for a frightening spectacle no sane man could bear to watch. So intense were these encounters, the two men were pushed deeper and deeper into the basement of death, away from all others, the most catastrophic cases carried in and dropped all around them. There rose up a constant echo of suffering around Howard and Andrew, beaten back day after day. Many died, but not all, and mostly because Andrew really did have the gift of healing. A spirit resided within him and he had trained it, coaxed it, molded it for just such a time as this.

Still, there was far more death than life in the dreaded basement where they were left in isolation. If a man was healed, he was quickly drawn away out into the land of the living, but for Howard and Andrew, there was only death upon death.

“How could I have known?”

I saw the madness rise in Rainsford’s expression. Did he think he was this man, this brother of the healer who toiled in the basement? Did he think
he
was Howard? The story couldn’t be true, and so it was clearly the most horrible of tales, where the teller has lost touch with reality. I looked to the door and thought I should leave, run to Percy, but Rainsford’s eyes pleaded for me to stay, to let him finish what he’d started.

He repeated his words.

“How could I have known?” Poor Andrew, so long in the desert, was slowly losing his mind. So much death and destruction, so much failure. My sacred brother had come to my aid and this was how I repaid him, by driving him with a whip as he stood by my side, speaking life into men who would surely die if all they had to count on was my earthly skills.

And then one day the bodies stopped coming. The war ended and I returned to my secret place of work. I expected Andrew to return to the desert, to reclaim the life that was his. But I also wished he would stay and keep me from loneliness. I adored him—he was all I had. He said things I didn’t want to believe, that the power he had might have turned darker than it used to be, but that it was more alive than ever.

We began to think mad thoughts.

Rainsford had stopped speaking of Howard as anyone but himself and I was truly terrified of the man before me. Again I thought of screaming or running for the stairs, but something held me. It was his eyes, not violent but despairing, and my own curiosity. I felt the end of the story coming and couldn’t bear to leave it unheard.

Experiments followed. Many years of tampering with things no man should touch. We had many cadavers, rivers of blood, and unquenchable curiosity. The things we did—to our minds and our bodies—unthinkable. But the further we went, the less we cared. Soon we were at a full boil; nothing was safe from our touch.

My brother had gone further than any man into the deep realm of the ancients. The darkest place in the universe is at the foot of the Almighty, you see? Andrew had taken on a Godlike complex. I had corrupted him. I brought him back out into the cruel world, but how could I have known? The kind of power he had was made for the desert, not the deadly basement laboratory.

He had dreams and nightmares all the time, waking in the night and standing at the side of my bed, tapping me awake, saying the same words over and over until I thought it would drive me to the grave. He said:

 

“And in my dream I saw a beast coming to take me away.”

 

At long last our paths of knowledge and science and the ancients crossed in the form of the procedure. The procedure, with the power of blood, was the tool I used to extract what had to come out. For you see, I came to believe my brother’s gift had become his curse. Whatever this thing was that found a home inside him needed to come out. What was once a power to heal had become a monster that was killing my brother.

“It cannot be destroyed,” he told me. “It will find a home.”

“Better someone else than you,” I reasoned.

“That’s not how it works,” he assured me. “I give it to whom I choose and I always get it back.”

A madman!

We had pushed each other with all manner of experimentation. We had tampered with God’s work. Andrew believed, and who was I to doubt, that the power could be unleashed and made free by one way and one way alone. The procedure. The power of thunder would free him.

But what did it mean to break the curse we had made?

By this time Andrew was, in my humble view, very close to losing his mind. He spoke nonsense morning, noon, and night. He spoke of being ageless, repeating it over and over in his private room as a screaming, violent invocation of the most dreaded kind.

“I will never die! Never! Never! Never!”

Finally I could take no more. He wished to have it and I was willing to go to any extreme to save him. From what? From damnation, if you must know.

Strapped to the wicked chair, shackled by ankle and wrist, the procedure had him in its claws and I had the power to burst the beast from my brother’s chest.

He was at peace in the chair, the crazy chants softened to a soothing whisper. And then his words changed to that grim message I’d heard a thousand times at my bedside.

 

“And in my dream I saw a beast coming to take me away.”

 

Andrew turned his head to me and spoke.

“I have asked it what it will do when it gets out and it has told me. This eater of death, it speaks.”

Oh God, let it end! My young brother has gone mad!

“It’s not your fault alone, Howard. But know this, and know it well. We have played God, the two of us together—we have done this wicked thing. Now a price must be paid.

“This monster we have made can only live in one, you understand? When I’m gone, it will go on. It will go on forever. It cannot be stopped. What if it chooses you? Then you will live and live and live. It speaks.”

I was crying, trying to listen and nod and pretend my poor brother hadn’t gone insane, wanting to end it, but unable to. He kept at it, rambling on and on about rules and consequences, things it had told him.

“Remember these things I say,” my brother said, “because it tells me it will never speak again. It is careful. It has its own ways and they are not your ways. I loved it once—you know this. But we have corrupted it and it has turned to a mind of its own.”

I took this as a slap to the face, my ways of science, which had utterly destroyed the peaceful path my brother was on. But somewhere, in the deepest part of my soul, I knew his path had been no better. All along the way, those many years in the desert, he’d wanted more than the world had to offer. I knew this because we were brothers, and because I had always felt the same way.

He went on raving quietly—it was almost a whisper now—tears running down the side of his face. I placed the helmet on his head, this most beautiful invention. Seven tubes projected out of the helmet, long and slithery like snakes, leading to six more helmets on six cold cadavers. Brave men, useless in battle. They would be of use to me now.

My brother was speaking again.

“You are a wicked boy, Howard. I know what you’re trying to do. You will fail.”

This message from whatever demons had taken my brother from me was unthinkable nonsense. It was not my brother, but the broken mind of a wandering man in the desert.

And yet I drove him on!

“Why do you say such things, Andrew?”

“You want to live forever. I know you. You’re a coward.”

“I don’t understand,” I blathered, my hand shaking on the switch that would end the nightmare. “What do you mean to say?”

“This is no mercy—it is only an experiment. It is only ever an experiment for you, is it not?”

I told him I loved him.

I wanted to hear him tell me he loved me, too. Three simple words—that’s all I wanted! But he had stopped talking. He would say no more, so I went about the grisly business of preparing myself for the inevitable. I put my own helmet on. There were blades and tubes inside, cutting precise incisions into my neck and head. A burning line of pain crawled inside my skin, into my chest.

My own brother and the other six, they were my first, for he was right. Andrew was crazy beyond repair, but he spoke the truth.

It was my grand experiment. And lo, on that very night, it proceeded to work its black magic. The procedure was set in motion.

I threw the switch and Andrew’s body charged with convulsions as blood raced out of him. How it burned that first time! Burned like fire! I cried out for God to forgive us our wicked deeds. I was full of anger and confusion and regret and, most of all, a harrowing loneliness.

For I knew the truth before the deed was done. He would not live through the procedure.

When I opened my eyes, my brother Andrew was gone.

I will never know if his spirit, forged in the desert over many years, had anything to do with the outcome. But one thing was sure, one thing was learned. It would lead Howard onward, beyond all reason.

When he stood up from the chair, he was a younger man.

Rainsford was crying softly there in the kitchen. I had questions, things I didn’t understand, but I didn’t want to disturb him. Rainsford had weaved himself in and out of the story like a confused child. He had conjured a masterpiece of reanimation, of becoming younger, of making the old and dead new again. My mind was alive with ideas.

I had my thread.

And of one thing
I
was sure, as Rainsford had been sure: this was no madman, but a curious, broken creature. And an extraordinary storyteller. He would have received a standing ovation from Lord Byron without question.

I leaned in, seeing he had wiped away a tear and taken a deep breath. He seemed to have expunged himself of some hidden evil carried inside for far too long. Truly a remarkable story, most notably for the way he knitted himself into it, playing the part of the older brother, then backing away as if he’d come too close to the edge of a cliff and looked down. Brilliant. I must learn from this man’s story, I thought, in the ways of the craft.

I ventured a question, whispered in the dark of the kitchen, playing his game.

“When do you suppose your story takes place?”

BOOK: Phantom File
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