Part three of eight (1 2)
Willem jumped back with a gasp. He tried to tear his eyes away from the dead Jew’s cold, bloodless stare but he could not. “Doktor?” His voice came out strangled. “Doktor?”
“Magnificent,” the Doktor said. He was now standing beside Willem and looking with wonder at the Jew. “Has the stilled heart starting beating again?” he stepped forward and probed the Jew’s chest with his stethoscope, shielding his eyes with his free hand from the icy gaze of the Jew. “No breath and no heartbeat,” the Doktor said. “No signs at all that this Jew is anything but dead.”
“That’s impossible!” Willem protested. “Look at him!” The dead Jew turned his gaze back to Willem, and Willem took a step backward. He had never before seen a gaze so….commanding, that held him and wouldn’t let go. The dead Jew opened his mouth and a sound came out, a breathless snarl of rage and malevolence. Willem felt himself being beckoned closer, pulled forward by some force. He took a step toward the dead Jew, and another, and another. The dead Jew bared his teeth. Had his canines been that long before? Had they been that sharp, tapering to needle-like points? The dead Jew opened his mouth wide as Willem leaned over him. A vein throbbed in Willem’s neck as he bent down toward the dead Jew’s waiting lips—
Willem was suddenly grabbed from behind and torn away from the dead Jew. He sprawled across the floor and the room seemed to spin around him. He blinked his eyes clear and looked up at Doktor Muething, who now knelt beside him. Willem’s stomach heaved and he rapidly swallowed to keep from vomiting.
“Here,” the Doktor said as he pressed something into Willem’s hand. “Wear it around your neck. It will protect you.” Willem looked down at the object. It was a silver crucifix. “I’m sorry I didn’t think to give it to you before,” the Doktor went on. “I must be getting old, if such important details are escaping me.” Willem put the chain around his neck, and his stomach quieted almost immediately as he did so. Then he stood up and joined Doktor Muething beside the dead Jew. The Doktor wore a matching crucifix.
“Lord have mercy,” Willem said. The Doktor only nodded.
The dead Jew stared at them with wide eyes burning white. Its skin had gone the color of alabaster and those horrible canine teeth gleamed in the harsh light of the surgical lamps. The dead Jew slowly tested the restraints on each of his extremities and growled when it discovered its immobility.
“It worked,” the Doktor whispered. “More things on heaven and earth….”
“What have we done, Herr Doktor?”
“We have created.”
Willem tried to fathom just what they had created….and then the dead Jew let loose a smoldering cry of agony. Its body convulsed against the restraints, and its strength was such that they nearly broke. The dead Jew convulsed again and again, shrieking wildly each time. That scream reminded Willem of that of children receiving their first injections – but of course it was far, far worse. He winced and stepped back, but Doktor Muething stepped forward.
“What is happening?” the Doktor said. The dead Jew kept screaming, its convulsions becoming more and more violent. Willem stepped back up to the Doktor’s side and watched, his eyes wide in fascination and horror. Somehow this starved, weak, dead body was pushing the restraining straps to their absolute limits. It was inconceivable that it could be that strong.
“What if it breaks free?” Willem asked.
Doktor Muething glanced at the clock. “I have a way of dealing with that.”
Willem heard trucks rolling by outside and the distant whistle of an arriving train; the camp would now be coming to life for the day – but his attention was riveted to the dead Jew who thrashed violently against its bonds. A musty and pungent odor of rot and decay filled the laboratory. Willem remembered that smell from when he had accompanied Uncle Gunther to a village that had been stricken by influenza. It had been the smell of unburied dead bodies.
Then the dead Jew’s skin sank as though its body was aging forty years in minutes, and still it threw its weight against the bonds and glared at Willem and the Doktor with blazing eyes. His shrieks became even more horrible, and Willem covered his ears; and then the restraints finally buckled and gave way. The dead Jew’s arm was free. A giant lump formed in Willem’s throat as the dead Jew reached up with his free hand and tore the head restraint aside; after freeing its other hand the dead Jew rose to a sitting position and glared at Willem. It ripped its ankles free and leaned forward, as though preparing to spring.
Willem froze, utterly unable to move. The veins in his neck pulsated and a warm wetness trickled down his leg as he realized that Doktor Muething was no longer beside him. The dead Jew approached, baring those awful teeth. All the while its skin sank farther, taking on the mottled appearance of a person three days dead. The dead Jew circled Willem, shrieking again and again, coming no closer than a few feet as the crucifix became hot around Willem’s neck. Willem wanted to run, but the creature’s eyes kept him rooted to that spot as if his legs were no longer his own. The crucifix grew hotter and hotter, and Willem wanted nothing more than to tear it from his neck. The vein in his neck throbbed, his hand moved toward the crucifix that seared his flesh – and then the dead Jew was suddenly bathed in brilliant yellow light. It threw up its hands in front of its eyes and screamed anew, but this time in horror and agony. Willem looked to his left and saw that Doktor Muething had opened the shutters, allowing the light of the rising sun to stream into the laboratory. The dead Jew wailed and writhed upon the floor, and as Willem watched its skin turned gray, its eyes sank into its skull, its lips shriveled and its teeth turned black. Less than a minute later the dead Jew truly was dead; the corpse was a dried, desiccated thing that looked human only in its roughest shape. Quiet settled over the laboratory again, and Doktor Muething’s cuckoo clock signaled seven. Just like that it was all over. From outside could be heard loudspeakers blaring announcements, truck horns and engines, and the regular commotion of morning at Hamerstadt Concentration Camp. Willem looked at Doktor Muething, who was wiping his hands on a towel. He suddenly felt quite weak.
“You knew that would happen?” he asked. His voice felt very small.
“Not entirely.” The Doktor shook his head. “Something went wrong, that much is certain. He clearly suffered an adverse reaction to the drug.”
“An adverse reaction,” Willem echoed, not quite believing the Doktor’s choice of words.
“Quite adverse, wouldn’t you say?” The Doktor smiled. “I am so close, so very close....” His voice trailed off, and he rubbed his forehead before speaking again. “You should go clean yourself, Young Schliemann. Then I will take you to a place where you may find explanation. Be ready in one hour.”
Suddenly aware again of his damp undergarments, Willem nodded and headed outside. He had to stop before crossing the street. A column of prisoners was being marched by, single-file. All were Jews. Willem remembered the defiance, the grim determination that he had seen on Jewish faces when it had all begun, years before. Now there was no determination; there was only waiting, waiting for the end. The last of the prisoners, an emaciated old man, glanced at Willem, and for some reason Willem looked away. They weren’t human, so why should any of this matter? Finally they had all gone by, and Willem crossed the street and returned to his dormitory. He felt a strange sense of calm, so it was completely to his surprise that he vomited when he got to the washroom.